The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol04/nr01/a09

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 4, nr. 1 (May 2013)


Justin Patch


In Listening (2002) Jean-Luc Nancy proposes a philosophy that listens, one that does not arrive at static, definitive conclusions but continuously resonates and remains open. This essay conceptualizes an ethnography that listens by putting Nancy’s thinking into play with texts that philosophically critique writing from different angles. By examining concepts of voice, speaking, the author, listening, and open work within writing practices, a polyvocal, nomadic concept of writing that listens emerges and points in many potential directions. One line of flight leads to ethnography, where the conflicts inherent in textualizing human representation continue to be examined and experimented with. In the second half of this essay, I propose one of many possible approaches to an ethnography that listens: ethnography of spin. In conscientiously, honestly, and openly writing the experience of getting spun – an integral part of mediated everyday experience in modernity – we offer texts that listen, resonate, echo, and can be transformed, remixed and re-mastered.


He who stands aloof runs the risk of believing himself better than others and misusing his critique of society as an ideology for his private interest. (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia)

For ethnographers, sound pervades our experiences in and memories of the field, remaining with us long after we are back home and situated in a different space. In the field, sound waves and echoes intermingle with our feelings, expressions, and intimacies, pique our emotions, and change the manner in which we later narrate and contextualize our experiences from a safe distance. We recall hearing the roar of furious bargaining in the market place, the hush of shared, intimate spiritual moments, the thrill of an invitation to a special event, the unfamiliar dance moves accompanying unusual music, and the confusion of idiosyncratic language that no classroom can prepare you for. Trickles and torrents of sonic waves engulf and permeate us as much as any sensate or visual experience. Away from the field, sounds trigger these visual, tactile, olfactory and gustatory memories, and vice versa; they also recontextualize our experiences and perceptions of home. However, writing about sound and describing the act of listening and its lasting aftereffects continually frustrate ethnographers as we grapple with translating multi-logical sensation and memories into texts that are meant to be read privately, in silence. The uniqueness of sound – its elusiveness, polysemy, intense subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and ambiguity – makes it difficult to affix to the page. The lasting influence of sound as it becomes memory and cross-referential information is particularly challenging to affix in discreet written form. These mobile characteristics are what make sound an eminently powerful and ubiquitous cultural force. By constantly changing the listener through perception, emotion and recollection, sound remains active in unique ways, rendering it a challenge to the written word.

The tantalizing characteristics of sound pique the philosophical imagination because they differ so dramatically from writing and reading text. Western philosophy, institutionalized to train statesmen and create citizens, should be interested in the lasting effects of sound, as the process of self-knowledge and personal and social transformation are life-long and constantly morphing.[1] The long resonances of sound and the project of self- and societal construction have much in common. In the human sciences, critical theories have adopted a similar project to classical philosophy: understanding and impacting social life through cultural critique. One of the major modes of researching and presenting this research is through ethnography,[2] which naturally concerns listening. When writing ethnography, sound and its representation become a unique challenge. Can we capture the essence of sounded life in ethnography? Can we compose an ethnography that listens as we do in the field, in a cumulative, synchronic, sustaining manner? Can text become what ears are: responsive, changing and constantly new, a conduit through the senses and into memory and sensuous action? Can written philosophy become a medium for a simultaneous cornucopia of resonances that both speak and listen? Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (Nancy 2002) has proposed the possibility of such a philosophy: a practice that listens. An investigation into his work as it is placed within philosophical critiques of authority, voice, listening and writing presents new possibilities and applications for conceptualizing the ethnographic research and writing process.

This essay begins with a brief critique of specific critiques by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes and the aesthetic philosophy of Umberto Eco. Following these post-modern and post-structural critiques, I use Nancy’s seminal Listening to flesh out the possibility a philosophy that listens, and an ethnography that continues to listen. I conclude with an investigation into ethnography of spin, “getting spun”, as one example of actuating ethnography that listens.

Engaging with different conceptions of writing about sound opens up new modes of theoretical and practical possibilities for humanistic research methods and for the practice of philosophy through sonic experience. It also engages with two aspects of interdisciplinarity. The first is that the study of sound must engage with multiple fields, humanistic, scientific, empirical and speculative, to be thorough and rigorous. In this essay, my primary tools are philosophy, literary criticism, cultural studies, and anthropology. The second is a necessary correlate: if sound studies must draw on myriad disciplines to form its methods, epistemologies and theses, its conclusions will speak to many disciplines. Through probing and meditating on sound and auditory praxis, sonic studies offer a cornucopia of fresh critical provocations to our many home disciplines.

Sound Authority

The fabrication and reception of sound presents a precarious but potentially productive conundrum to thinkers who wrestle with the philosophical, scientific and aesthetic implications and social affects of the sonic. Earlier notions of the ephemerality, verity, deceptiveness and invisibility of sound have been drastically altered to suit our age of mechanical reproduction and facile digital alteration.[3] Not only can sound be easily captured, transmitted and replayed ad infinitum (or ad nausea), it can be surreptitiously transformed and re-presented. Adding to this are investigations in physics and biological sciences that explore the materiality of sound and its corporeal, cognitive, medical and social impacts. Through the scope of auditory inquiry, the affects of sound have come to occupy four wide, overlapping dimensions: hearing, touch, emotion/feeling[4] and the metaphysical.[5] These four dimensions concern everything from linguistics to acoustics, neurology to musicology, ethics to critical theory, and have concerned theorists, healers, musicians, advertisers, politicians and power brokers for millennia. With sound occupying such a prominent place in social life’s manipulation and analysis, writing about sound becomes a dangerous territory of translation, representation, application and politics. As Steve Goodman (Goodman 2010) eloquently points out, sound is a battleground, a weapon and a tool. For Plato songs, storytelling and acting must all be regulated in the interest of the state and reinforcing citizenship; he warned against the danger of corrupting the young and ruining their morality. For Aristotle, a musical and rhetorical education is a prophylaxis against manipulation and emotional appeals that can be proffered through song.[6] Interests of all sorts have stake in understanding and using sound.

In recording, writing, and theorizing sound and sound’s affects, how do we then represent the fullness of sound in print? Can words and figures on the page do justice to the many sensations of hearing, feeling and understanding sound? Do notes, letters or graphs provide enough information to understand and perform a piece of music or recreate a theatrical moment? Can linguistic transcriptions represent tonal languages, heightened forms of speech genres, idiosyncratic dialect, and verbal performance events in their dialogical and heteroglossic complexities? Volumes have been dedicated to the material aspect of transcription, representation and ethical implications of making sonic practices legible in formats that are ethno- and cultural-centric. As recording and archiving technologies have drastically improved preservation and accessibility, new issues have arisen which problematize purely sonic modes of representation that are devoid of the total historical, sensate experience and are easily transmitted without context, becoming loose signifiers.[7] The conflicts between the (assumed) temporality of sonic sensation and the definitive, silent and inflexible distance of text are played out in the fields of power and ethics, as well as in the physical and consumptive praxis of these dialogical modes of cultural (and subject) production.

The Voice

Where sound and text come together most commonly is in the voice. While voice is by no means the only manifestation of meaningful sound, not every meaningful vocal sound is texted, and speech only one of many uses of the voice; sonic hermeneutics and semantics are tricky business in all aural manifestations.[8] The multiplicities of non-texted sounds and their reception are profoundly culturally conditioned, often in such small parcels that it is difficult to draw a single conclusion about meaning that applies to more than a relatively select group.[9] Sound’s association, interpretation and accompaniment to physical, emotional and cognitive motions are complex, convoluted, and dependent on a host of cultural, spatial, and temporal variables. Voice, with its ties to language and articulate expression, might seem a last refuge of coherent, definable sound that can traverse between individuals and communities. By comparison, the written word, which is the basis for a long history of hermeneutics, is seen as successful in conveying a comparatively stable set of meanings, although not necessarily opaque or without its own cultural baggage.[10] By the early 20th century, the Enlightenment belief in the rationality and translatability of writing was beginning to wear thin, and by mid-century optimism about inevitable progress was shattered, the objectivity of writing along with it.

In the choppy wake of Jacques Derrida’s seminal Of Grammatology (Derrida 1974), a deep theoretical rift was conceived between the act and ethics of writing/reading philosophy and the sensation/reception of the sound of the authorial voice. Expanding on a track started by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critiques of auto-eroticism, Of Grammatology advocated a liberatory writing practice that is not a supplement, substitution or artificial prolongation of the authoritative sound of the (human, authorial) voice, but a whole new form, deriving from separate aims and ethics. For Derrida, phonological writing is, “nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism” (Derrida 1997: 3). In working/writing against the powerful metaphysics of phonocentrism in writing, the existing order that excludes and denies subjectivity and dignity to some can be deconstructed. In Derrida’s estimation, the potentially pernicious processes of judgment, a priori and prejudicial thinking, and the auto-affection inherent in logo-centrism, can be combated by eliminating the ear, and its associations with verity, presence, power and emotion, from the circuit. In doing this, writing can become the instrument of a new ethics of a posteriori deliberation and reasoned communication.[11] By wedging space between the subject writer (who exteriorizes himself) and subjected reader, the metaphysics of presence, domination, and truth inherent in logocentrism can be chipped away, allowing for infinite re-interpretation and re-imagination. By dislodging vocalized meaning from writing, de-centering the determinate affects of communicative context, and recognizing the semantic struggle always already in writing, the homogeneous space of communication that erects artificial boundaries and iniquitous exclusions can be broken.[12] Writing freed from phonocentrism does not confine or define the reading other, but opens pathways for multiple re-readings and re-use by both subject and other, in an ethics of openness and play.

In his astounding critique of the voice, Mladen Dolar (Dolar 2006: 15, italics in the original) provisionally defines the voice as “…what does not contribute to making sense. If we speak in order to say something, then the voice is precisely that which cannot be said.” Linguistics takes the text of speech as its object, but disregards the voice, the social articulation of language, perpetually pregnant with meaning. The voice is then severed from the signifier and becomes an appeal, often emotional, interpellative or authoritarian, that depends on its sonic substance and audience for authority and efficacy. By being deprived of meaning, voice is unleashed to mean more, to mean everything, “…unfathomable originary meaning,” (Dolar 2006: 31). The voice is that of subjectivity and, as Roland Barthes (Barthes 1978) points out, the body is present in the (sung) voice. For phenomenologist Don Ihde (Ihde 2007), we also hear through our bodies, intimately linking the listening ear to the sensual and cognitive self as we sense the sound of ourselves and others. It is these aspects of the voice and speech – body, subjectivity, dominance, authority – that pin philosophy, truth, and language to the voice. It is the subjective, remote, differential and phonocentric control over writing that Derrida wishes to eliminate through a science of writing, and the processes of deconstruction. Unimpeded by the ear – which divides self and other – writing can be liberated from phonocentrism’s limitations.[13]

In another equally powerful but profoundly earthly critique of the voice-ear circuit, the history of advertising in the US shows a disdain for the forked tongue of the snake-oil salesman or confidence man, as embodied in the likes of smooth-talking Henry Hill.[14] His verbal skills and ability to manipulate otherwise rational people with his silver tongue were legion (think of the Duke and the Dauphin in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Advertising’s earliest American form was the con, run by men selling alcoholic beverages or faux magic amulets as cure-alls. This made the sale of mass-manufactured products at the beginning of 20th century industrialization difficult because of the deep distrust of promises and pitches by unknown travelling salesmen. The remedy needed to establish a nascent advertising industry was text and the verity of the written word, aided by major truth in advertising campaigns and legislation. In this scenario, the voice plays the role of the forked tongue and text its enlightened, rational adversary, fighting for the soul of an industrializing nation.[15]

Here we can see the desire to split text away from the sounding voice/body of the messenger. This approach treats text as more rational and capable of objectively portraying thought and information than the human voice, and regards the voice as fallible, prone to self-interested pitfalls and selfish wants. This line of thought extends back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill and John Locke who advocated education and literacy as a path out of the darkness of superstition and self-interest. For this legacy of thinkers the written and read word was the key to human progress. Contrary to this, Derrida conceived of a writing that has moved away from the ethnocentrism of the phonetic and dominance of the definitive. This evolution in writing is essential to constituting humane existence.

Against the Author

Challenging verity and authority of the written word, post-modern theorists questioned the author and the authorial function. Michel Foucault (Foucault 1994) defined the authorial function as something that prevents the overflow of meaning and composes both the rules of definition and transgression, performing fundamentally limiting actions. Foucault also outlines the characteristic traits of the authorial function. These involve juridical, social, and institutional power systems that affect the production and dissemination of discourse; complex social operations which determine authorship; and the creation of diverse selves and subjectivities which can then be occupied.[16] These confining and defining mechanisms were deeply problematized by scholars in the humanities and post-colonial theorists who saw the dubious composition of the Other through writing – ethnographic, fictional, journalistic or otherwise – as socially restraining and prejudicial. Writing about the other, be it colonized, gendered, classed, hysterical, racialized, beautiful or ageing, relegated them to undesirable places and states of mind, such as the savage, the primitive, the subjugated, the kitchen, the clinic, the prison, or the manual and domestic laborer. Often it deprived them of dignity, autonomy, complexity and self-determination.[17]

When writing about the other, ethnography has been subjected to academic self-examination in the wake of the post-modern representational critique, in an attempt to work through questionable disciplinary histories and into new paradigms.[18] Various compositional experiments and modifications have been examined in anthropology to remedy this. Among anthropology’s answers to this was experimentation vis-à-vis authority. Strict attention to the use of prejudicial language, emphasis on thick realistic description, and a move away from psychologizing and grand theories to characterize artificial groupings of people were proposed as solutions. However, as we will see with Nancy’s criticism of philosophy, anthropology is still bound by the epistemology of writing, one that may be polyvocal and experimental, but does not listen, echo or sound, and has difficulty representing the sonic experience of human encounter.

While Foucault critiqued the author, Roland Barthes killed it, or at least attempted to. In his polemical, and dramatically titled, essay ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes effectively denies the author the ability to inject meaning directly into the eyes and minds of readers. In modernity, the identity of the author, and therefore their authority, is muted by a host of interpretative possibilities. These are dependent on the subject position of the reader and the nature of the text’s construction. The author as subject dies when writing ends, never to be completely resurrected by the reader. The author lives but a brief life as a writer and expires as the act of writing ends (we will return to this point again). Modern readers staunchly refuse to have meaning arrested before they participate, a profoundly revolutionary act that dispatches with Authority, Universality, and Truth (and according to Derrida, the possibility of a singular, stable context that definitively frames interpretation). Barthes renders reading infinitely intersubjective and contingent.

In between Foucault’s critique and Barthes’ fantasy is Umberto Eco’s idea of the open work (Foucault 1994; Barthes 1978; Eco 1989). Eco begins his critique with examples taken from musical compositions by contemporary composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, and Henri Pousseur. In all four cases, the work is formatted in such a way that the performer has a level of input into the form and sequence of the pieces. The end result is that within the field of possibilities, no two renderings of the composition are alike. In their incompleteness, or waiting-to-be completed, they are open works, simultaneously a performance and an interpretation. Pousseur went so far as to suggest that if the public were provided with a suitable recording and playback equipment, they too could re-arrange the pieces of a recorded performance to suit their own tastes, giving the consumer the role of a performer. Eco then applies this to poetry and fiction that revels in suggestiveness and ambiguity. It invites the reader to abandon themselves to a world where centers are non-existent, rules are wantonly bent, and morality, ethics, and dogma are challenged. Likewise, in dodecaphonic, serial, and aleatoric music, the listener is presented a system without privilege and center. In both musical and literary cases, the openness of the work allows the listener/reader to co-participate in the co-construction of an original and contemporary world. Eco and Barthes overlap in their attribution of revolutionary activity to works that empower the performer/reader/audience to open their imagination, create new possibilities, and assert their subjectivity against or through existing works. Eco’s theory opens up the possibility of a composed work that is designed to be contingent upon the receptor, similar to Barthes and in dialogue with Foucault.

Approaching Limitations

So how do we approach the question of writing with sound – composing in both senses of the word – in the wake of post-structural and post-modern critiques and theories? If the sound of the voice, sound itself, and authorial writing are prone to dubious deployments,[19] erasures, and affects, does their combination offer an escape or a magnification of the potential problems? Does an appeal to openness in aesthetics, composition and interpretation provide revolutionary potential to the text? While the conditions of impossibility and fallibility have been set up, what are the conditions of possibility? How do we reconcile Derridean deafness – his distrust of the ear as the membrane that divides self and other[20] – with contemporary theory and epistemology and present ethnographic writing to the modern receptor through ocular, aural, metaphysical and emotional channels?

The short answer is that we use these limitations and problems as a way to cultivate new directions in writing with/about sound alongside new concepts, ethics, and methods to work through. As Roland Barthes noted, the project of interdisciplinarity is not to bring pre-fabricated lines of inquiry together to gaze at and measure an object, but to recognize an object that is itself new and does not a priori belong to any one field of inquiry.[21] Writing with sound holds the potential to answer Barthes’ call for a true interdisciplinarity, as sound itself necessitates a host of disciplines to be understood. Because of this, ethnographic writing with sound cultivates new venues for textual experiments that eschew both static authorial rigidity and textual deafness, creating not just a polyvocal text, but one that reverberates, resonates and echoes between author, reader, other and sonic phenomena.[22] (From here on I will restrict my analysis to language-oriented vocal sound, because of wider applicability, and a discussion on composition with the myriad, infinite varieties of possible sound warrants a much larger treatment that I have space for.)


One point of overlap between the two gestures/genres of writing and sound can be found in a singular abstraction present in both: listening. Sound as we experience and express it is heard or listened to before it becomes part of our cognitive realm and our social expression.[23] While trees that fall in the forest no doubt make a sound, it is listening that animates our (possible and potential) reactions to that sound, even if we do not hear it through our ears (humans possess a wonderful aural imagination and mind’s ear). In his exegesis on listening,[24] Jean-Luc Nancy describes the relationship between listening and intersubjectivity in a way that can be creatively harmonized with the ways in which Roland Barthes addresses writing in ‘To Write: An Intransitive Verb?’[25] By linking sound and writing to listening, and integrating them with Nancy and Barthes’ theories, productive points emerge where the two creatively inform each other.

To open his text, Nancy asks the question of a philosophy that listens – searching to forge or forage a genre of thinking (and writing) that takes on the characteristics of an auditor. For Nancy, the philosopher is one who has substituted understanding for listening, reifying ephemeral vibrations and oscillations so that coherent thought can arise, imposing stillness and measurability, translating sensation into concrete meaning. He asks how we reconcile the evident qualities of the visual with the resonant qualities of sound, as they both activate the entirety of the sensory system in a play in ceaseless motion: emerging, transitioning, echoing, informing, and returning. Listening then can only be the act of straining for meaning but never wholly acquiring, possessing or controlling it; being perpetually active without the philosophical sensation of finite arrival and proven conclusion.

Looking back to Aristotle, Nancy reminds us that any sensation is always already an articulation of the subject. We feel ourselves sensing, making the constitution of a self an a priori. But in listening, we are in search of a subject, pursuing resonance that will imbue subjectivity. In diving for sound there is a crisis of self as we give our ear, minds and bodies over to external vibrations. In this way, the ear (and listening body) have a tendency to be methexic, contagious and participatory (as also noted by John Dewey, 1954), gravitating towards the sonic source to gain a (often ephemeral) sense of self, in search of forces which permeate the body with both sensation and worlds of referential associations.[26] What separates this host of feelings from those that accompany the visual, which can also be synesthetic, are the (e)motions and dynamics with which sound accompanies sensation. Instead of being simultaneous, like vision, Nancy classes the sonorous as contemporaneous, placing space between the producer and auditor which eludes understanding, but begs to be engaged with. In this formulation, the auditor is not a philosophical subject, for s/he is not being in the ontological sense of possessing of a stable, definable identity. They are listening, a receptacle for perpetually fluctuating resonances that alter the relationship between self and other, the self of the past and the contemporaneous self. An example of this is the auditory religious experience, where hearing sounds ranging from glorious music to moving sermons alter parishioners: moving them to tears, repentance, or conversion. In these moments, the active listener’s identity fluctuates along with the sound.[27]

The constructive nature of sound is also theorized by Dolar, when he posits that the voice is what ultimately connects the body and language, subject and the other, and Aristotle’s zoe and bios – man in his naked, primordial state, and man as a social creature, part of the polis (Dolar 2006: 73, 103, 121). Tracing webs between theology, metaphysics, physics, politics and psychoanalysis, Dolar locates the subject’s voice as a response to a silent, potentially absolute authorial voice that may never be heard, but we feel compelled to respond to, in order to create our own subjectivity. Voice is what builds the viscous boundaries between the self and the other, creating separation, connection, order and meaning – all of which are perpetually dynamic. For Dolar the voice – both the sounded and theoretical, imagined voice – is a de-centering, disruptive tool. For Nancy, this shifting state is the province of the listener, the one who hears the voice (or sound in general) and is perpetually in flux, trying to locate the relationship that gives order to the language of the body: self, other, zoe, and bios. This is also the location of Nancy’s re-imagining of philosophy: can philosophical writing be a text that is perpetually dynamic, pliable and mobile? Can writing have ears and be de-centered, resonated and on an unending odyssey in the same manners as listeners?

Writing: the Intransitive State

Barthes’ essay ‘To Write: An Intransitive Verb’ (of which I am only using a small section) might seem to be in contradiction to Nancy’s theories. While much of the essay is dedicated to structural linguistics, the end probes the idea of placing the verb ‘to write’ in the middle sense (as opposed to the diathetical active or passive senses), where the writer is both doing the action and is transformed by it (Barthes compares this to sacrifice, where one can make the self become a sacrifice, being both the subject and object of the event). Barthes writes, “It is my opinion that in the middle verb to write the distance between the writer and the language diminishes asymptotically…In the modern verb of middle voice to write, however, the subject is immediately contemporary with the writing, being effected and affected by it.” He then goes on, “The field of the writer is nothing but writing itself, not as the pure ‘form’ conceived by an aesthetic of art for art’s sake, but, much more radically, as the only area for the one who writes.”[28]

By rearticulating the verb to write, Barthes’ writing and Nancy’s listening have found a common denominator in the elusive subjectivity of the contemporary. While endeavoring to perceive and be resonated by sound, a listener who is positioned in the presence of a sounding subject – sensing sensation and molding subjectivity – is similar to the writer, existing in a middle sense. Just as the writer is constituted by the action of the writing that s/he does, the listener is shaped by the act itself, and both are in a moment of self-formation. They intentionally place the self into the space of not-yet-being, of vibrating contemporaneously but imperfectly with the other’s resonances and echoes just as engaging in the act of writing induces similar oscillations (I hear the sound of the keys and the whirring of the fan, and I produce my philosophical self).

Defending Writing Listening

Here, writing and listening are united in the sense of being self-constructive, fundamentally temporal, and set in an interstitial space between active and passive. However, both Derrida and Foucault’s critiques are not to be overlooked in this brief harmonizing. As Foucault pointed out in ‘What is an Author?’ the discourses constructed by authority (its institutions, systems and operations) are not attached solely to a specific subject, but create subject positions that can then be occupied by specific classes (which may or may not include the author), or compel classes to occupy socially uncomfortable positions. We need not search far or listen deeply to sense powerful individuals and institutions occupying authorial positions that are not of their own imaginative, intellectual, physical or expressive labor. In response to this real and dangerous element of writing, we have little recourse but to the temporal dimension of Barthes’ and Nancy’s theories that attempt to evade the stasis that provides apertures for ossified visages of interpellation. By consciously eschewing the definitive author status, by creating writing that listens, searches and is constantly de-centered, by existing as author only when we write and ceasing to exist when we are not writing, we can at least self-consciously attempt to actively and intentionally refuse the pernicious effects of Authorship.

In the final paragraph of his essay, Barthes defends his theories against charges of formalism or solipsism by stating, in perhaps the most profound single sentence of the piece: “For these categories [of language such as person, tense and voice] are precisely those in which we may examine the relationships between the je and that which is deprived of the mark of je.[29] What Barthes does not expand upon is what transformations happen when writers deliberate the ethics of the designation I. What is the affect of a praxis that is conscious of the luxury of subjectivity and willful self-construction, as well as its inverse? It becomes, as Nancy would have it, a practice that listens, that constitutes itself as being in the presence of the other’s presence, but is not enforcing stillness and cessation of resonance in the name of understanding. The possibility of writing without intending to force interpretation upon the reader opens an aperture for writing itself to listen and be transformed by the reader not once, but many times over. Writing with clear knowledge of subjective privilege (the ethnocentrism embedded in phonetic writing and the dubious deployments of writing) necessitates a respect for the interpreter and an inter-subjective willingness to be deconstructed. While this in no way assures writing’s escape from Foucaultian appropriation by power, a flight from imposing understanding towards listening attempts to destabilize discursive positions of authority. Writing, following Barthes, should be cognizant of its privileges, its power and potential to be unethically deployed. But, following Derrida, it should also be turned into its own liberating potential “to the ineluctable world of the future which proclaims itself at present, beyond the closure of knowledge” (Derrida 1997: 4).

Derrida’s critiques of the ear and philosophical writing also loom over this synthesis. When engaged in the act of writing, which Barthes ties to the composition and construction of the self (with all of its implications), does the product then fall into the metaphysical predicament of phonological writing (the problematic metaphysics of presence, transcendence and a priori judgment)? Does the creation of the writing subject conform to the same logocentric rules of Derrida’s speaking, auto-erotic subject (writing is no doubt also an erotic act)? It seems as though a case can be made for Barthes’ writing subject being a computer-equipped adaptation of Derrida’s authoritative speaker. While Derrida opens up the possibility of writing in such a way that is open to the other, Of Grammatology has staunch critiques of Western philosophy carried principally through writing. However Nancy offers a counterargument to Derrida’s critique that the origin of truth is the word, rendering philosophy logocentric. Derrida’s point, while relevant, is softened by Nancy, who exhibits clear awareness of Derrida’s argument, as he insists that through listening the verity of the voice, presence, and being are altered. By becoming resonant, as listeners are, the actively ear-ed place themselves in a position of being-with, where subjectivities are ambiguous and heteroglossic sound undercuts doctrine. This offers an intervention into the strict subject-object binary relationship and all that it entails. In actively listening we are in a state of being confused and confounded, pursuing nomadic meaning rather than subduing it, stating or absorbing it directly and unreflectively. In actively listening – rather than being subjected to sound – and in making the ethical and intellectual obligation to be listeners in the same manner that we commit ourselves to be critical and contemplative, we gain an essential tool in the pursuit of writing a philosophy that is not phonocentric.

In fusing Barthes’ interpretations of writing and reading with Nancy’s prescription for listening, we arrive at a de-centered place where the different manifestations and ethics of composing with sound can be textually conceived. In this articulation (one of many possibilities) we compose ourselves through writing, and as listeners we are deprived of stability and authority and are compelled to keep listening, and to keep writing. We do this by producing writing that eschews definitions and formalism, rejects absolute understanding, and openly greets our own temporality and the slippery resilience of those about whom we write. It realizes the limitations of text, and, like sound that is captured, is open to re-realization, re-mix, and re-membering. And like sound it passes on resonances and creates echoes. It exists in a middle sense, not completely in control, but not entirely submissive, and unlike Foucault’s formulation, as a listening writing, it is deprived of the function of creating subject positions (other than that of a writer) because it is constantly in flux and in search of elusive understanding without a fixed point of arrival or an anchor.

In conceptualizing a writing that listens, we must remember two things. First, that each foray into writing concerns a writer that is only temporarily created and effectually disappears when the writing is finished, relinquishing the right to fixed meaning and definition. The cessation of the author and the authorial function means that the reader has power of interpretation and that our words are always inevitably re-used, re-assembled and recycled in a process of echo and reverberation. Second, we are challenged to write in a way that admits the contingency and de-centered position of analysis. Given the challenges of ethnography, writing with sound – being open-eared and sensitive to the contemporaneous and long-lasting effects of hearing cultures as well as writing with the intent of being echoed, deconstructed, re-mixed and altered – offers another experiment in the unending process of ethical and substantive humanistic-scientific scholarship.

Experiments in Theory and Practice

For a number of disciplines, ethnography is the form of writing that defines our research methods, epistemologies, and the scholarship produced. In this, ethnography is a Janus-type form, a research practice as well as a writing genre. It encompasses personal contact with individuals, communities and cultural practices, along with time away from the field to craft themes, theories, narratives and characters. Without the finished product of ethnographic writing, we have only the fieldwork experience, and without fieldwork we do not have the information needed to compose an ethnography. Through exposure and experience to social life, most ethnography involves sound in one form or another, at the very least in communicative language or basic social literacy. Volumes have been dedicated to the myriad issues of translating these meaningful sounds – language, verbal art, music, natural, environmental and industrial reverberations – into text, as well as the ethics of representation that this entails.[30] In the long shadow of interpretive or symbolic anthropology, the idea that social life is a text and can therefore be read and interpreted, has unknowingly prioritized the eye over the ear. However, frustrations with the limits of this approach have lead anthropologists towards more poly-sensual ways of investigating and experiencing culture (Erlmann 2004; Taussig 2004).

Efforts made to work creatively within ethnography have often taken sound as a model or conceptual space. Perhaps part of the motivation lies in recreating the affects that sound possesses. In anthropology’s experimental moment, the idea of giving others multi-faceted representation and situating the anthropologist in the text, spurred a number of writing innovations. One of these was affective writing, which sought to create feelings and emotions in the reader similar to the experience of the ethnographer (Marcus and Fischer 1986: Chapters 2-3). Numerous theorists have noted that sound – from the philosophy of Aristotle to Islamic theologians to contemporary neurological studies – is connected to feeling and emotion.[31] While earlier Western philosophy treated emotion as unwanted baggage to thought, current research into the operations of human mind and behavior has shown that emotion is an integral part of social behavior and the individual decision-making process.[32] From the Enlightenment tradition through Derrida, this automatic reflex of the emotions has been seen as detrimental to the project of cultivating rationality and reason.

Where the eye has been linked to judgment – Kant’s Critique of Judgment focused on visual art and related music to wallpaper, which beautifies a room but is hardly a medium for the development of critical thought or intersubjectivity – the ear has been linked to less grandiose social modes and analyses. Often mobs, crowds or the rabble are described in sonic (as well as olfactory and gustatory) terms, whereas the trappings of high society are not.[33] John Dewey (Dewey 1954) forwarded that while the eye judges, the ear participates. That sentiment gave pause to the joyful democratic process as political rhetoric was depicted both as an essential part of pluralism, as well as the purveyor of deceit that skirts the critical eye and nests in the emotional (and irrational) ear. He went on to note that voters are often swayed by familiar, repetitive slogans and simple solutions to problems that are far too complex to be reduced to a single policy or program, often to their own material detriment.[34]

It is theorized that the ear is the closest to the heart[35] and that empathy, an emotion that connects one person to another through sympathetic feeling, is cultivated by sound.[36] In addition, multiple theorists have noted the synesthetic affects of sound. These are most obvious in mediated visual cultures which are often dependent on the aural for interpretive cues. In the literature on sound in film, advertising and political campaigns, the salience of sound has been noted and given thorough analysis. Perception, memory, recall and association are influenced by the addition or alteration of sound to images.[37] In our contemporary moment, it feels as though every product, character, and image, must be accompanied by a soundtrack to be whole, legible and complete. Sound and emotion are deeply tied together in theory, theology, the practices of everyday living, and in the act of recording everyday life.

Affective writing is one response to the difficulty of translating the synesthetic affect of sound. The other was initially labeled “performative writing” in the wake of J.L. Austin’s profound influence on the humanities. Following Austin, some who strove to move beyond the dead letter of the text looked to create writing that was efficacious through being active. As Austin wrote (Austin 1962: 13, italics in original), there are, “…some cases in which to say something is to do something; or in which by saying something or in saying something we are doing something.” Austin takes as an example wedding vows, which serve to create an interpersonal, legal, and socially legible bond through a specific linguistic performance that is more than just reportage, procedural or prepositional pronouncement. Similarly, affective writing works to re-create, simulate or relate experiences to the reader on an emotional level, through any number of literary, picturesque, narrative and linguistic devices, sometimes emulating the sonic experience.[38] However, from a political standpoint, the two techniques have subtle differences. Performative writing is attached to a more specific program (i.e. aiming to accomplish something specific, to have an intended outcome, as in Austin’s wedding example) and exists within Foucault’s paradigm of Authority creating spaces through writing for readers or those read about to be slotted into. Affective writing intends to recreate the feeling of what happened to the writer in the reader. This resonates with Barthes’ theory of authorial passing in favor of autonomous and agentive readership. Affective ethnographic writing invites readers to feel into the text, rendering it a constant experiment, a non-transcendent ethnography that itself transforms over time as feelings, reactions, and references change.

Ethnography of Spin

Following this, I suggest ethnography of ‘getting spun’ as an affective mode of adding the sonic to the written – one that is temporal, ephemeral and of modernity. In writing the act of getting spun we can produce resonant writing, text that listens and continues to change with the reader. By chronicling our own emotional vicissitudes under the influence of persuasion without the urge to transcend them, we produce documents that listen. Spin, humorously defined as letting someone else have it your way, is a ubiquitous element of contemporary life. If we are to include advertising, PR, and certain cynical news and information spaces, we are surrounded by attempts to mold and influence our thinking and control collective discourse.[39] Spin in its most effective articulation is (at least partially) sonic: eloquent rhetoric, tear-jerking and laughter-inducing commercials, slickly produced personal interest stories, and seductive appeals. Commodity fetishism has found an essential partner in sonic accompaniment, as have political campaigns and films. A musical score and sonic branding are essential to modern marketability.

If we take the role of emotion in our cognitive, social and personal lives as a serious field of inquiry that can – cautiously – be used as a tool for understanding social behavior and expressive culture, spin’s affect on our beings is a crucial point. In listening to spin, we are performing Stephen Connor’s notion of listening in modernity. For Connor (Connor 1997), we as modern subjects are membranes through which sound moves. We are vibrated and in turn we resonate with the power, influence and efficacy of the sounds that we come into contact with. We then transfer that kinetic resonance to the beings that we are with, influencing our surroundings.[40] In the act of listening, sound moves through us and is subject to our own individual and cultural filters before proceeding forward in meaningful ways. In getting spun, we recognize the penetrability and vulnerability of the auditor, that no intellectual feat or activity is immune to the influence of the outside. By writing through getting spun, we are representing the contemporary listening subject.

For ethnographers of the contemporary, understanding the modern pied piper through sound is essential. Without sonic analysis, neurology, cultural theory and statistical data are abstract representations. In evaluating sonic persuasion, an honest accounting of the effects of spin is imperative. This can be done ethnographically through affective accounts of getting spun. Unlike examples of affective writing which also painstakingly attempt to represent the multifaceted experience of sound and are written with breathtaking textual skill, ethnography of getting spun is about being honest in depicting the feelings, reactions and opinions that are experienced in their immediacy. Writing must be done without filtering reactions to fit theory, analysis and narrative, and without crafting them to conform to emotional narrative convention (the obvious caveat is that there are writing conventions that must be met to be intelligible and not completely solipsistic). Ethnography of spin openly excludes any claim of verity and factuality beyond the honesty and openness of the author in their reaction to persuasion.[41]

As the insightful Adorno quote that begins this essay implies, there are definite ethics involved in this method of writing.[42] To adopt a transcendent stance in relation to social and cultural critique is potentially dangerous because it implies that the writer-observer-critic is superior in some fashion to those who they write about. Taking Adorno’s critique seriously means that ethnography of spin does not lay spin bare, but adopts an explicitly non-transcendent stance and admits the corporeal human-ness of the writer. If the writer does not stand aloof, then his ideologies are free to be deployed by anyone without prejudice or exclusion in a play and exchange. While there is definitely space for openly deconstructing and laying bare the historical linkages between charged discourses, sounds, and images and their social affects, there is also a fundamental place for subjective portrayal of and by the influenced. As is the case with qualitative analysis of advertising, evidence of efficacy is realized in the form of significant cultural shifts. These manifest in further perpetuation of successful advertising techniques, repetitions of image and sound, and the dissemination and proliferation of the ideas and ideals into other facets of cultural life. Of course, financial success is the major rubric by which these triumphs and failures are measured.[43] These analyses in longitudinal studies are of great importance, but there is a space where the uneven impacts of these forces can be displayed unapologetically, honestly and candidly.[44] In capturing the small moments of spin, times when opinions are altered and new ideas are introduced, readers have the possibility of using writings for their own interpretations of selves, communities, and historical moments. Instead of attempting to portray thought that has reached a point of finiteness and arrival, readers are left with raw materials with which to assemble their own ideas. In this openness writing can listen in the sense that it can resonate with readers and remain dynamic as it, its readers, and referents age. Social life is a long-duration process of accrual and change, and diversions into the micro-ethos of distinct moments help to locate the point at which the waves of cultural change begin.[45] When we capture and transmit interesting and meaningful thought, rather than definitive theories, we forgo the status of authority and become part of a conversation with the future rather than a discourse with the past.

Unlike both affective and performative writing, ethnography of getting spun is written about the author’s vicissitudes, the reflective experience of being molded by myriad social forces both within and beyond their control. This also implies that the ethnographers impulse to transcend the immediacy of feeling and emotion for the sake of rational, reasoned reflection or critique is fully bracketed. The ethnographer no longer has the right, obligation or option to deconstruct, psychologize or interpret the other. We are products of our time, our scholarly, economic and consumptive milieus. We are as prone as any other individual of being manipulated, swayed, convinced, interpellated, and capable of occupying subject positions that are not of our own construction (often through the stylized consumption that spin promotes). This project is not so much a submission to the forces of private interests, but a candid admission of spin as a crucial element of everyday existence and its importance to the representation and study of social life.

Ethnography of spin would recount everyday life in the contemporary moment and tackle the myriad forces of persuasion in the present as we taste, hear, touch, speak, see, and feel the world around us. It examines the social forces outside of our control – industry, capital, advertising, tradition and regimes of epistemology and information – that affect our actions, thoughts, internal and external lives. How are we changed – even if only momentarily – by the social forces around us? How do we transform that affect into counter-energies? How are we compromised, fortified, comforted and disquieted by these sensations traversing our bodies? To record these in conjunction with our field experiences is to shape our writing from a grounded, earthly, non-transcendent position. It is from this position – one that does not enforce quietude onto ideas, or freeze them in absolution, but records them at their most charismatic – that we can write text that listens. In recording the micro-articulations of affect in a thick, realistic and honest way, our own texts can listen: they vibrate and move our readers, take on the shape of those we spend time with, diverge, echo and morph in our subjectivity, and allow those who come after us to re-mix and re-experience them.[46]

In a post-modernity that is lacking in capital-T truth, a universal center, master narratives and definitive epistemological hierarchy, perhaps all there is to hang legitimacy on is the honesty with which we offer our thoughts. This indeed refers back to Barthes and Derrida as we come to a point where subjects are created through writing, but the metaphysics of presence and the supplementarity of writing conspire to relegate that formation to ironic imitation and mimesis at best, and simulacra or outright lie at worst. Again, if we turn writing into a process done through listening, composing with sound [in] mind/ear/skin, we are turned in a new direction, one that is open to spin and other influential manifestations of public culture. By changing the writer from authority, by dint of presence, rights and autobiography, to a de-centered subject, created in the most typical of contemporary moments of being spun, new possibilities are opened. Not the least of these is the potential for an epistemology that speaks across disciplines. The pressure of honesty rather than authority, also enables our writing to be transdisciplinary, because it is relieved of the gravitas that weighs down thought and encourages stasis and conclusiveness rather than dynamism, dialogue, heteroglossia, and openness.

To revisit Nancy’s scholarship, how do we write ethnography in a way that listens (despite the fact that while we as ethnographers inevitably are engaged in listening, our writing often is not)? How do we do the rigorous analysis required of philosophy while judiciously avoiding the constraints of understanding? Here is where spin offers one solution. To be spun is not to be subjected to one voice, image or discourse, but to have them reinforced through repetitive articulations and variations. In candidly writing these compounding affects, we must write in a way that cannot be cleanly fit into linear or temporal narrative, must be unabashedly open to immediate ridicule and critique, and to be fearlessly grounded in the contemporary. In an era where revolutions are hatched, executed and crushed in mere moments, we are often mistaken in our observations, but that does not mean that they are wrong. They are simply caught in the spin cycle which creates, distills and disseminates ideas indiscriminately, mixes them, passes them on, dismembers and discards them. Ethnography of spin, as a philosophy that listens, is one which does not necessarily speak with the authority of transcendence, but as a self-reflective witness to the impact of cultural practices on society. While treading the slippery slope of solipsism, without the bolster of authoritative language, and possessed of the self-consciousness of Barthes’ ideal writer, who introspectively realizes the benefits of being able to be, we can write experience in a way that listens and passes on the sensation of auditing the present in a way that listens and resonates according to both the author and the reader.

A Mobile Conclusion

What I have presented here is just one small possibility in a sea of potential lines of flight away from writing as a silent, static pursuit, towards the practice of writing with/through/as sound. By embracing sounds affects and the unique properties that give the auditory sensation such lasting but malleable and vacillating significance, we integrate new ideas, concepts and demands into our writing praxis. By listening to and feeling modernity and all that being a listening body entails, new modes of poly-subjective social writing (and reading) take shape. Ethnographies of spin are but one of them. By adapting the transdisciplinary epistemologies of sound and social modes of listening to research methodology, ethics, and writing, we expand the scope of our own research and to make sound studies a more integral part of documenting, contemplating and contributing to social life.


1. Recent scholarship on the militaristic uses of sound put this question in dramatic relationship to the roots and origins of classical philosophy. See Steve Goodman (2010). Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press. for excellent analyses of aggressive sound and the state.

2. See Marcus, George and Michael Fischer (1986). Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3. For a substantial literature review and summary of theories on sound, verity, sensuality, and deception, see chapter 1 in: Connor, Steven (2000). Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. In neurological literature, feelings are internal manifestations, and emotions are the externally visible traces. For the sake of humanistic audience, I will use feelings/emotions interchangeably, as is common practice in vernacular English. My apologies to neurologists everywhere.

5. The metaphysics of sound are found in everything from Pythagorean notions that the modes cause specific behaviors; theological reflections on sound (speech, the sounds of nature and music) drawing the heart and soul closer to the divine found in Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Muslim writing; and the practice of listening to and playing music being key to learning proper manners and introspective contemplation in Confucian thought.

6. See Plato, The Republic and Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. For excellent selected readings, see Hofstadter, Albert and Richard Kuhns (eds.) (1964). Theories of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

7. For a particularly insightful example, see Steven Feld (1994), “From Schizophonia to Schizmogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Music’ and ‘World Beat’”, in Charles Keil and Steven Feld (eds.), Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues (pp. 257-289). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

8. I will limit my remarks to sound-voice-text for two reasons. First is for the sake of length: a treatment of musical interpretation, bird calls and ambient sound will require more space than I have here. Second, many fields rely on sounded language for research, so for the sake of broader applicability, this locus will be primary.

9. In the wake of R. Murray Schafer’s seminal The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1994), a multiplicity of work has been done on non-musical/non-linguistic sound. For an excellent review of views on the question What is Music? See chapter 2 in: Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990) Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of Music (trans. Carolyn Abbate). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

10. For those who deal in translation, it is obvious how complex linguistic semantics often are. See Jacques Derrida (1988) Limited Inc (trans. Samuel Webber, Jeffrey Mehlman, and Alan Bass). Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press for a deep discussion of context, communication and speech that systematically deconstructs all assumptions about the ways in which communication was thought to function. Also see Sheldon Pollock (2002), “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History,” in Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha, and Dipesh Chakrabarty (eds.), Cosmopolitanism (pp. 15-53). Durham: Duke University Press for a critical comparative analysis of writing effects in the Roman Empire and Sanskrit across South Asia.

11. See Derrida, Jacques (1974). Of Grammatology (trans. Gayatri Spivak). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Derrida, Jacques (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press; Derrida, Jacques (1997). The Politics of Friendship (trans. George Collins). New York: Verso.

12. Derrida, Jacques (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.

13. For a concise summary and critique of Derrida and deconstruction see Cobussen, Marcel (2002). “Introduction to Deconstruction” in Music and Deconstruction (Doctoral Dissertation). Rotterdam: EUR.

14. Hill was the smooth-talking confidence man in The Music Man, whose heart was softened, and plans ultimately thwarted, by falling in love.

15. See Lears, T. J. Jackson (1994). Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Basic Books.

16. Michel Foucault (1994). “What is an Author?” In Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (eds.), The Essential Foucault (pp. 377-392). New York: The New Press.

17. See: Troullot, Michel-Rolph (2003). “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Politics and Poetics of Otherness,” in Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (pp. 7-28). New York: Palgrave/MacMillan; Flores, Richard (2002). Memory, Modernity and the Master Symbol. Austin: The University of Texas Press; Dirks, Nicholas (2006). The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. All three are excellent examples of the ways that writing (and in the case of Flores, also film) creates positions into which othered populations fit.

18. Clifford, James and George Marcus (eds.) (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; Marcus, George and Michael Fischer (1986). Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

19. Worth noting is the idea of sound as an overtly dominating force. Brian Currid offers an insightful sonic history in A National Acoustics: Music and Mass Publicity in Weimar and Nazi Germany (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). Julian Henriques (2003). ‘Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session’ in Michael Bull and Les Back (eds.) (2003). The Auditory Culture Reader (pp. 451-480). Oxford: Berg; and Norman Stoltzoff (2000). Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham, NC: Duke University Press., both examine Jamaican Sound Systems and provide historical account, ethnography and analysis of Jamaican dance hall and its power dynamics. Also see Steve Goodman (2010), op. cit.

20. See Veit Erlmann (2010). Reason and Resonance. New York: Zone Books, pp. 47-49 for a concise critique.

21. Quoted by Clifford in Clifford and Marcus (1986), eds. op. cit.

22. Multimedia holds tremendous potential for making sounded text. However, given the calls for radical democratization found in contemporary theorists, I find it important to deal with traditional text. While electronic media are making tremendous headway globally, my personal opinion is that text-based literacy, at this moment, performs more democratizing functions than electronic media. That will change soon.

23. Here I will not parse hearing/listening, as theorists have designated them differently, one for the passive act and one for the active. Because valid examples of both can be found, I will use the term ‘listening’ to designate the active variety simply because I am drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy’s text of the same title and thus will make use of his terminology. However, Veit Erlmann (ed.) (2004). Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound Listening and Modernity. New York: Berg., stands as an example of the inverse.

24. Jean-Luc Nancy (2002). Listening (trans. Charlotte Mandell). New York: Fordham University Press.

25. Roland Barthes (1972). ‘To Write: An Intransitive Verb?’ In Richard and Fernande DeGeorge (eds.), The Structuralists: from Marx to Levi-Strauss (pp. 155-167). New York: Anchor Books.

26. John Dewey (1954). The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press. Links between audition and other senses are widely noted, especially in the world of advertising where extensive research has been done on the affects of sound on emotional perception and factual recall.

27. See Hirschkind, Charles (2004). “Hearing Modernity: Egypt Islam and the Pious Ear.” In Veit Erlmann (ed.) op. cit. (pp. 131-152), and Schmidt, Leigh Eric (2002). Hearing Things: Religion Illusion and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

28. Barthes, in De George and De George, (eds.), p 166.

29. Ibid. p 167

30. See Clifford and Marcus op.cit., John Van Maanen (ed.) (1995). Representation in Ethnography. London: Sage., Sherzer Joel and Kay Sammons (eds.) (2000). Translating Native Latin American Verbal Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press. Paredes, Americo (1977). “On Ethnographic Work Among Minority Groups: A Folklorists Perspective.” New Scholar 6/2: 1-32.

31. Connor, op. cit., Charles Hirschkind, op. cit.; Antonio Damasio (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt; Judith Becker (2004). Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

32. See Antonio Damasio, op. cit., and Antonio Damasio (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin for excellent literature reviews, analyses and theory on the role of emotion in social life. Also see Uni Wikan (August 1992). “Beyond The Words: The Power of Resonance.” American Ethnologist, 19/3: 460-482. for a short summary of the differences between Western and Indonesian philosophers where emotions are concerned.

33. For an excellent example of this, see Joan Gross, David McMurray and Ted Swedenburg (2007). “Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap and Franco-Maghrebi Identities.” In Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (eds.), The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader (pp. 198-230). London: Wiley-Blackwell.

34. Dewey, op. cit., also see Lakoff, George (2002). Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Lakoff, George (2008). The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and its Politics. New York: Penguin Books.

35. Charles Hirschkind, op. cit.

36. Connor, op. cit. Also see Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1986). “Essay On the Origin of Language.” In On the Origin of Language (trans. John H. Moran and Alexander Gode). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

37. See for a few examples of the analysis of sound on the visual: Chion, Michel (2009). Film, A Sound Art. New York: Columbia University Press; Chion, Michel (1994). Audio Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press; Anand, Punam, Morris B. Holbrook and Debra Stevens (1988). “The Formation of Affective Judgments: The Cognitive-Affective Model Versus the Independence Hypothesis.” The Journal of Consumer Research, 15/3: 386-391; Brader, Ted (2005). “Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motvate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions.” American Journal of Political Science, 49/2: 388-405; Kellaris, James J. and Anthony Cox (1989). “The Effects of Background Music in Advertising: A Reassessment.” The Journal of Consumer Research, 16/1: 113-118; Kellaris, James J., Anthony Cox and Dena Cox (1993). “The Effect of Background Music on Ad Processing: A Contingency Explanation.” Journal of Marketing, 57/4: 114-125; Macinnis, Deborah J. and C. Whan Park (1991). “The Differential Role of Characteristics of Music on High- and Low- Involvement Consumers’ Processing of Ads.” The Journal of Consumer Research, 18/2: 161-173.

38. See Pollock, Della (2006). “Marking New Directions in Performance Ethnography.” Text and Performance Quarterly 26/4: 325-329; and “Performing Writing.” In Jill Lane and Peggy Phelan (eds.). The Ends of Performance (pp. 73-103). New York: New York University Press. Stewart, Kathleen (2007). Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

39. See Ewen, Stewart (2001). Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books; Ewen, Stewart (1996). PR: A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books; Twitchell, James (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

40. Connor, Steven (1997). “Feel the Noise.” In Gerhard Hoffman and Alfred Hornung, (eds.) Emotion in Postmodernism (pp. 147-162). Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter.

41. One might here refer to Anthony Giddens’ bold statement “The virtues of civil society, if left to its own devices are ‘Good character, honesty, duty, self-sacrifice, self-discipline, toleration, respect, justice, self-improvement, trust, civility, fortitude, courage, integrity, diligence, patriotism, consideration for others, thrift and reverence.’ To the modern ear…these have a ring of antique charm, but that is because state power has suppressed them, through sabotaging civil society.” The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1998., p 12.

42. See Patch, Justin (2010). “The Song of the Sirens and the Non-Transcendental.” The European Legacy 15/5: 619-637.

43. See Frank, Thomas (1994). The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Lears, op. cit.; Twitchell, op. cit.; and Marchand, op. cit.

44. Marchand, Roland (1985). Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, offers another tantalizing alternative as he reprints sections from a letter to ‘Betty Crocker’, the icon of General Mills. The letters Marchand reproduces and references indicate that many of the public thought of Betty Crocker as an actual woman and address her as such. This one tidbit of advertising history is an excellent example of how spin looks from the bottom, offering up a varied picture of the influence that one brilliant example of spin had on Americans.

45. For an excellent exposition on the wave metaphor and its application to collective memory and popular culture, see Lipsitz, George (2001). Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

46. One early example of this is Steve Feld (1988). “Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or ‘Lift-up-over Sounding’: Getting into the Kaluli Groove.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 20: 74-113. In it, Feld looks at an over-arching musical/social aesthetic, that of ‘lift-up-over sounding’ that melds notions of aesthetic beauty and naturalness. In writing about Kaluli social life and verbal art (also in Feld’s monograph Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression) Feld describes in depth his attempts at composing a ‘hardness’ in the text that would respond to Kaluli ideals when they expound on their own culture. In this way, Feld’s text was one of the first to consider textual innovations in music studies.


Adorno, Theodor (2006) Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life (trans. E. F. N. Jephcott). New York: Verso.

Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things With Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barthes, Roland (1972). “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?” In Richard and Fernande DeGeorge (eds.), The Structuralists: from Marx to Levi-Strauss (155-167). New York: Anchor Books.

Barthes, Roland (1978). Image Music Text. (trans. Stephen Heath). New York: Hill and Wang.

Bull, Michael, (2004). “Thinking about Sound, Proximity and Distance in Western Experience: The Case of Odysseus’ Walkman.” In Veit Erlmann (ed.), Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound Listening and Modernity (173-190). New York: Berg.

Clifford, James and George Marcus (eds.) (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cobussen, Marcel (2002). Deconstruction in Music. (Doctoral Dissertation). Rotterdam: EUR.

Connor, Steven (1997). “Feel The Noise: Excess Affect and the Acoustic.” In Gerard Hoffman and Alfred Horung (eds.), Emotion and Postmodernism (pp. 147-162). Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Carl Winter.

Connor, Steven (2000). Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin.

Damasio, Antonio (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.

Derrida, Jacques (1974). Of Grammatology. (trans. Gayatri Spivak) Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1988). Limited Inc (trans. Samuel Weber, Jeffrey Mehlman and Alan Bass). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1997). The Politics of Friendship. (trans. George Collins). New York: Verso.

Dewey, John (1954). The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press.

Dolar, Mladen (2006). A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Eco, Umberto (1989). The Open Work. (trans. David Robey). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Erlmann, Veit (2010). Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality. New York: Zone Books.

Erlmann, Veit (ed.) (2004). Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound Listening and Modernity. New York: Berg.

Feld, Steven (1988). “Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or ‘Lift-up-over Sounding’: Getting into the Kaluli Groove.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 20: 74-113.

Feld, Steven (1990). Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Foucault, Michel (1994). “What is an Author?” In Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (eds.) The Essential Foucault (277-290). New York: The New Press.

Goodman, Steve (2010). Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press. 

Hofstadter, Albert and Richard Kuhns (eds.) (1964). Theories of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, Don (2007). Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lears, T. J. Jackson (1994). Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Basic Books.

Marcus, George and Michael Fischer (1986). Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2002). Listening. (trans. Charlotte Mandell). New York: Fordham University Press.

Schafer, R. Murray (1994). The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Rochester, VT.: Destiny Books.

Taussing, Michael (2004). My Cocaine Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Twain, Mark (1987). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Harper and Rowe.

Justin Patch is a CFD post-doctoral fellow in the department of music at Vassar College where he teaches global and popular music classes. His work on the auditory culture of US politics has appeared in Soundings, The European Legacy, International Political Anthropology, and Americana.