The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol04/nr01/a10

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


Holger Schulze


This article presents Kodwo Eshun's concept of sonic fiction as an advanced and adequate methodological approach to sound studies. The references of More Brilliant Than The Sun (Eshun 1998) to afrofuturism and their methodological elaboration in Steve Goodman's Sonic Warfare (Goodman 2010) are discussed – as well as the strong epistemological connections to Michel Serres' reflections in his anthropology of the senses. Finally, this article explores the historical ramifications of the concept of sonic fictions in Alexander Baumgarten's concept of an aesthetic heuristic and ends with an enumeration of ten criteria for the methodological application of sonic fiction.


Returning from taking our 2-year old daughter to the nursery, I sat at my laptop and stumbled across a link to a new EP by Vince Clarke and Martin Gore. I turned it on, as the link was that of a free and legal online streaming service. And while I checked my most important emails, answered some questions on my diverse social media accounts and prepared some snail mail to be sent out this day – the oscillating beats and pulsating drones of the track Spock from VCMG (VCMG 2011) in all its extant remixes and alterations did not leave my ears, my mind or body. It stayed and stays with me, even now as I am revising and reediting this article.

In the end it seemed to me as if I was listening to this track during all these hours – but in what specific modes of listening did I listen to it? Did I experience some kind of intense imaginative mental state, through this track, which altered my corporeal state and felt very agreeable and appropriate to working here at my laptop? Was it a certain nostalgia for the new wave and electro pop those two musicians were once representing? Or was it even a certain drive and propulsion, provided by the minimal bass drum and bass lines, which stimulated a working flow through all the simple but intriguing subtle crescendi and decrescendi of this minimal techno track? In other words: What sonic fiction did this track provide for or inspire in me?

I will stop right here, and I will probably not come back to this track later. Does this seem appropriate to you as a reader of this journal article? Or does it irritate you, as a rather deviant if not insulting move to find within this genre? It could be that you sense a certain relief that the author of these lines does not even try to pretend to impersonate an anonymous, bodiless and omniscient subject, the general approach through which journal articles are to be written in these days.

Notably, I will not come back to this initial situation of me working on this article, listening to a certain sonic artifact, situating myself in a truthfully limited historical, cultural, social and ethnical background. But I will recurrently come back to the specific value of such a personal, idiosyncratic, sometimes perhaps even irritating, approach to research. I will come back to it on occasion of proffering an outline of sonic fictions as a rather new methodological approach for speaking about sound by means of idiosyncratic writing and exploring, by means of dense personal narrations of imaginations and sensory experiences, by means of perhaps annoying neologisms, references, associations – concerning artifacts of popular culture especially, but also concerning artifacts of everyday culture in general.

In my research and teaching, I have worked with and on the methodological aspects of sonic fiction now for almost a decade, in numerous lectures, articles, presentations and conferences, in research and design projects, mostly in German, but recently more and more in English. And this intense work brought me to the conclusion that a specific way of presenting and introducing the concept of sonic fiction might be perfectly suited to get readers and listeners, artists and researchers, into thoroughly understanding and maybe even supporting the main goals and historical as well as cultural ramifications of this concept.

Thus, this article will surely by no means provide a systematic outline of methodological applications of sonic fiction, as this would thoroughly contradict in every possible way the method and the goal of sonic fiction itself. This article, however, will – having started on a very personal note – follow that starting note. It shall take you, as a reader, into the quite personal region of sonic fiction: through time jumps and plentiful interjections of quotes and references, through recurring allusions and wordplay, through hopefully imaginative narrations and through perhaps too bold assertions. In selected aspects this article – still hopefully fulfilling the basic requirements of a journal article, but maybe not – will thus operate in ways sonic fiction also would: narratively and deeply personally; as situative and essayistic; fragmented and, after all, idiosyncratic.

This article will definitely not try to forcefully persuade or even convince you how all its various fragments and references link. There is no strenuously enforced military line of command and argument in this article. On the contrary, this article will make a decent effort to object to certain principles of logocentric effectivity and to certain principles of all-too-rigid scientific proof; it will give its non-argumentation, its narrative and audiovisual, its sonic elements and references the necessary space to resonate with you, the reader. By this it shall provide a necessary space, a room to think, a hiatus for personal associations and objections – even against the main arguments of this text – a certain freedom granted to play with these elements of sonic fiction.

All in all, this article might hopefully read as a very first draft; but actually it is more of a final version of a composition at the end of a decade, a composition which makes an effort to introduce – some would say: to seduce – its readers into the realm of sonic fiction.

Having said this, finally, here is what this article might nevertheless be offering you: first, I will introduce the cultural ramifications of the concept of sonic fictions and its inventor, the music critic and DJ Kodwo Eshun, as well as its application by Steve Goodman; second, I will elaborate the imaginative approach of Afrofuturism and its nuclei of sonic fiction together with an epistemological reflection following the works on sensory anthropology by Michel Serres; and finally, I will explain some of the conclusions and applications of the approach of sonic fiction, as this article ends with a plea for heuristics instead of methods, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, with a list of ten criteria for a sonic fiction.

1. 1998/2010/2039:Adventures in sonic fiction

The first part of my little voyage consists of three rapid time jumps: from 1998 to 2010 and onward to 2039.

In 1998 the small publisher Quartet Books in London released a volume that is currently out of print:

You are not censors but sensors, not aesthetes but kinaesthetes. You are sensationalists. You are the newest mutants incubated in wombspeakers. (Eshun 1998: -001)

Figure 1: Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun (1998)

Absurdly, it is currently easier to purchase the German translation of this volume, a version of the book that was actually re-written by Dietmar Dath (a famous German author and journalist, black metal specialist, science fiction author, and radical communist). I am speaking of the book More Brilliant Than The Sun by Kodwo Eshun (Eshun 1998):

The future is a much better guide to the present than the past. Be prepared, be ready to trade everything you know about the history of music for a single glimpse of its future. (Eshun 1998: -001)

In this volume Eshun narrates in a highly idiosyncratic style his listening voyages into the realms of free jazz, advanced electronic dance music, imaginary and factual new technologies; he draws connections from his narrations to the history of electronic warfare, to the invention of new musical instruments, to new life forms and to extraterrestrial creatures. Thus, the whole volume consists of a highly erratic and very joyful selection of topics. Moreover, all of this is narrated in a rather unconventional, cut-up-, stream of consciousness-, and rhapsodic-kind of way. Surely Eshun presents here no orderly, scholarly writing, but a truly insightful, sensible, inspiring and sonically deeply informed account of his individual (but not at all arbitrary) listening experience. Or, as I like to call it: a black Finnegan’s Wake of sound and technology studies:

The African drumchoir complexifies the beat into distributed Polyrhythmachines, webbed networks of poly*counter*contra*cross*staggered rhythms that function like the dispersed architecture of artificial life by generating emergent consciousness. (Eshun 1998: 5)

Such, perhaps irritating, narrations invent new theories of sound in an epistemically meaningful sense. In such sonic fictions, Eshun unfolds how sonic artifacts do imply descriptions of a specific sound in its material signature:

Each Drexicya EP – from '92's Deep Sea Dweller, through Bubble Metropolis, Molecular Enhancement, Aquatic Invasion, The Unknown Aquazone, The Journey Home and Return of Drexciya to '97's Uncharted – militarizes Parliament's 70s and Hendrix's 60s Atlantean aquatopias. Their underwater paradise is hydroterritorialized into a geopolitical subcontinent mapped through cartographic track titles: Positron Island, Danger Bay, The Red Hills of Lardossa, The Basalt Zone 4.977Z, The Invisible City, Dead Man's Reef, Vampire Island, Neon Falls, Bubble Metropolis. (Eshun 1998: 83)

Being a co-founder of CCRU, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick together with Sadie Plant, Nick Land and many others in the 1990s, Eshun especially refers to pop-cultural examples from the strand of afrofuturism (James 1954; Bernal 1987). The following explanation might be trivial for some readers of this article, but this background is crucial for the understanding of the specific approach of sonic fiction and its highly imaginative, idiosyncratic and heterogeneous approach and heuristic. A reader of this article might not grasp the fundamental epistemological rupture that Eshun executes via sonic fictions if its ramifications in afrofuturism are unclear: it is a fundamental rupture by means of an altered sonic epistemology.

Sonic fiction leaves many if not all basic assumptions of traditional research methods behind in following the principles of afrofuturism, methods of traditional research that – following Eshun – need to be historicized and scrutinized in their main and often compulsive concern with a rather culturally-specific urge for linear, almost obsessive consistency, with anonymous reproducibility of results and with a decontextualized objectification, all often contrived and morally-executed categories, for which Eshun proposes an alternative way of relating to (I will come back to this in the next part of this article). But, this being said: He has written a book in which he presents his own arguments for these issues.

For those not too familiar with the notion of afrofuturism, I would like to frame the following digressive explanation with two striking audiovisual examples from the 1970s and 1990s. These examples will not be referenced via quotes and textual analysis, which would be quite appropriate to traditional cultural research; they take their space, a place, through their erratic appearance as two audiovisual figurations in a journal article, as well as they can. This showing and experiencing of audiovisual immersion is part of sonic fiction's non-argumentative, extra-logocentric research practice. I strongly recommend the readers of this text to take your time and play both video files, also paralleling the reading of the following paragraphs.

The first example is the title sequence and introduction to Sun Ra’s film Space Is The Place from 1974:

The cultural thread of afrofuturism – as it was introduced in this film by Sun Ra – transforms the African cultural memory of being deported from a homeland to alien continents far away into a genuine and vitally propagated futurism in artworks, literature, pop and dance music. This black appropriation of futurism is defined by its liberation from Western rationality as well as from a white lifestyle and promotes an epistemological and ontological position that is deeply rooted in a bodily concept of understanding as well as connected to anti-historical, anti-linear, and even anti-moralist positions.

The second example I wish to interject is the track Hydro Theory from Drexciya’s 12" record The Journey Home, as released on Warp Records in 1995, twenty years after Sun Ra's movie.

If you play both examples, by Sun Ra and Drexciya, simultaneously, listening to both at the same time, I am sure you experience something of the genuine complexity, the epistemological approach and the aesthetic idea of afrofuturism as an art form and a form of thinking, a thinking beyond words and beyond traditional argument, an argument via sensing and immersion, an immersion into an audiovisual alien experience.

To put it in a nutshell: in afrofuturist artifacts such as movies, musical performances or tracks of electronic music, the enslavement of African people in times of European colonialism is being re-signified as an affirmation of an African and black alien lifestyle. African futurists take advantage of an anti-logocentric freedom to imagine and to enact endless possibilities of re-inventing themselves, their culture and their technology. They postulate a liberation from a disciplining genealogy, from hierarchically enslaving definitions and arguments following a well-known Western logic, from any quest for truth and verification, in the name of their invented afrofuturist tradition. A tradition that rightfully claims to be invented, as any tradition is.

A seminal article on afrofuturism was published by Kodwo Eshun himself in 2003, “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism”, where he writes:

Imagine a team of African archaeologists from the future—some silicon, some carbon, some wet, some dry—excavating a site, a museum from their past: a museum whose ruined documents and leaking discs are identifiable as belonging to our present, the early twenty-first century. Sifting patiently through the rubble, our archaeologists from the United States of Africa, the USAF, would be struck by how much Afro-diasporic subjectivity in the twentieth century constituted itself through the cultural project of recovery. (Eshun 2003: 287)

In 2010 Eshun's CCRU-colleague Steve Goodman (also a musician and a DJ with the alias of Kode9) also applied this concept of futurist archaeology as sonic fiction in an MIT Press publication titled Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear. This book discontinues the afrofuturist discourse as it applies and develops Eshun’s approach of sonic fiction into a valid method of research in critical theory. In his book, Goodman narrates individual situations, moments and events out of the history of sonic weaponry, how these inventions could have shaped our presence and how they will shape our future. For Goodman, not only military machines for the annihilation of adversaries are sonic weapons; all technological tools are sonic weapons that aim at repelling, influencing and manipulating human beings or groups of humanoids. Every THX cinema is an arsenal of weapons.


Figure 2: Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare (2010)

Thus he narrates in a truly sonic-fiction-like manner; he takes advantage of the same anti-logocentric freedom African futurists take advantage of: to imagine and to invent endless possibilities of re-inventing sonic culture and audio technology in a convincing style. And in this way he narrates the crucial moments in the history of sonic weapons from the year 50.000 BC as well as from the year 2039:

It appears therefore that a major axis of sonic cultural warfare in the twenty-first century relates to the tension between the subbass materialism of music cultures and holosonic control, suggesting an invisible but escalating micropolitics of frequency that merits more attention and experimentation. (Goodman 2010: 187)[1]

But what are, now, the specific characteristics of a writing style or a methodological approach we might rightfully call a sonic fiction?

The subsonic body of bass and the invisible holosonic control of 2039, such sonic fiction – after Goodman and Eshun – strives for an analytical strength and a subtlety that can be achieved only in the genre of the essay. A highly fantastic genre that affects our bodies via personal narrations of auditory, often-imagined experiences and experienced imaginations. Goodman and Eshun both do apply an essayist style of writing, however, with significant differing stylistic details that do refer to and represent their different biographies, education, social stratum and context of publication. Whereas the invented tradition of afrofuturism is obvious in Eshun's writing, it is more implicitly stated in the writing of Goodman (he makes, however, several explicit references to Kodwo Eshun). Nevertheless, Goodman dives joyfully and sometimes ferociously, even sardonically, into imagining and narrating periods and instances of sonic warfare in a not-so-distant future of 2039 as well as in an unimaginably distant past of 50.000 B.C., as well as in rather established periods of Western historical writing, such as 1738, 1842 or 1913.

Still, writing about these periods becomes obvious as a fictitious, though inspiring and highly elusive and epistemic writing: Goodman does not camouflage his erratic and provocative inventing and fantasy as is often done when writing about historical times; and, in the process, he implicitly reinterprets and recontextualizes all traditional historical writing as a kind of vivid fiction, thus proving the inspiring and analytical potential of sonic fiction to a great extent.

At this point of my article I suppose it has become quite clear that such a style of writing does not anxiously adhere to academic standards of citation, logical argument and proof more geometrico. Moreover, such personal articulations about sound and the senses gain a hitherto unprecedented degree of theoretical and epistemological dignity as well as power to convince. After all, these fictions are not arbitrary. On the contrary, they are focused on specific sonic experiences in a given historical period, as experienced by specific and nameable beings: beings who do not hide behind the all-too-well-known rhetorical figure in academia of an anonymous subject with insight. Beings who are specific even in their corporeal practices and in their individual tastes. Steve Goodman is present in both of these aspects – in his decidedly provocative and polemic interpretations of the history of sonic warfare as well as in his well-known club culture persona. Or, in terms I will explicate more extensively later in this article: Steve Goodman's heuristics as a DJ, selecting, mixing and distorting tracks, these heuristics do ground all his writings as a media researcher with a profound knowledge of sound processing, of vibrational forces, and of social cohesion via the workings of volume and pitch. I will return to these practices as heuristics in the final part of this article.

Finally – and this is the value of such specific and individual practices – in writing sonic fictions, epistemological appreciation is being granted, above all, to individual articulations of sensory and sonic experiences. They are not arbitrary or superfluous; they are specific and absolutely necessary as reference.

2. 1985/2009: Philosophie des corps mêlés

The second part of my tiny voyage consists of a rather simple time jump: from 1985 to the year 2009, with a rather brief touchdown in 1993.

In the year 1985 Michel Serres – French mathematician, science historian, trained seaman and immortal member of the Académie française – published a book in which he, the narrator, tells us his history of the senses through a history of philosophy, a history of art and architecture, a history of the sciences and humanities and a history of everyday life: Les Cinq Sens: philosophie des corps mêlés (Serres 1985). In his interpretation, the senses are emanations of mingled bodies, if you interpret them in their physicalistic aspects, their anatomical aspects, their erotic and their artistic aspects.

Just recently, in 2009, this rather comprehensive, but still decidedly individualistic and highly idiosyncratic volume, which refuses so vigorously to be restricted to a mere anatomical theoretical elaboration, this anthropology of the senses has been translated into English. English being the true lingua franca of global research, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that a broad reception of Serres' approach and theoretical outline can only begin now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. More so as Serres is questioning and deconstructing a vast amount of fallacies and false assumptions in contemporary theories of perception, issues that have also been central in the critique of science during the last two decades.


Figure 3: Michel Serres, Les Cinq Sens (1985)


Figure 4: Michel Serres, The Five Senses (2009)

Significantly, presumably to attract differently-orientated readers, the cover design changed: from traditional bourgeois aesthetics and art history, as suggested by the original French cover image, to a neo-bourgeois gastrosophy and enology. Indeed, the knowledge of wines as well as art history, the art of cooking, the ars amandi, but also painting, sculpture and bel canto, are central parts of Serres' anthropology of the senses.

In all of his writings, Serres puts a strong emphasis on the genuine intermingledness of all life forms and existing artifacts: he stresses the non-pure and the corporeal, the non-verbal and even non-quantifiable nature of any sensory perception. Especially in this volume he lays the foundations for a substantial critique of culture, science and society, deeply rooted in epistemological reflections. This critique somehow operates parallel to the epistemological revision both afrofuturism and sonic fiction do execute and postulate at the same time. Their critiques of a self-destructive logocentrism and the annihilating nature of capitalist culture – nowadays again becoming commonplace – can all be found in condensed form in Serres’ methodological approach.

Most prominently, he unfolds his underlying method in 1992 in a series of talks with Bruno Latour, the thinker of a symmetrical anthropology of things, of networks, of a “parlement des choses”, introducing the term syrrhèse:

Ce que je cherche à former, à composer, à promouvoir – je ne trouve pas le bon mot –, c'est une syrrhèse, et non pas un système, un confluent mobile de flux. Des turbulences, des glissements de cyclones sur les anticyclones, comme sur la carte du temps. Des noeuds de paille. Un ensemble de relations. Des nuages d'anges qui passent. Encore un coup, la danse des flammes. Le corps cicant danse ainsi, et toute vie. La faiblesse et la fragilité gisent au plus précieux de leur secret. Je cherche à faire naître un petit enfant. (Serres 1992: 179f.)[2]

Serres defines this syrrhèse in one of the core chapters of Les Cinq Sens, titled “Èsprits Animaux” (“Animal Spirits” in the English translation), as a rather difficult to verbalize sense and knowledge, a, if you will, more bodily-implicit sense and feeling for the right mixture and the right proportion, e.g. when mixing physical substances in the process of creating an elaborate beverage, a wine. In defining this implicit bodily sense, he drifts rather close to the fringes of language, in a manner quite similar to Kodwo Eshun or Steve Goodman as they narrate their sonic fictions to describe a bodily sense of sounds and rhythms. Serres writes:

Nous rêvons confusément à l'acclimatation par notre langue d'un mot pour dire cette confluence. Nous n'avons pas de coverseau ni de syrrhèse. (Serres 1985: 174)[3]

This concept of syrrhèse is fundamental to Serres' thinking; the ramifications and subtleties of this epistemological as well as methodological concept were recently explored with a range of young researchers and artists as well as with experienced scholars in a volume devoted to this bodily-implicit sense (Schulze 2012). In my article, here, it is important to note one crucial point in the aforementioned chapter of Les Cinq Sens. In “Èsprits Animaux”, Serres degrades the philosophical conversation (nota bene: his own, very noble profession!) as being completely irrelevant as such, e.g., the famous, well-educated conversation in Plato's sober binge drinking, called Συμπόσιον or Symposium. [4] According to Serres, this conversation renders itself irrelevant because of its distance to and its ignorance of the senses and the body. Of real value, according to Serres, are only the processes of cooking and stirring, of mixing and broiling, of marinating and cutting, roasting and boiling down. All of this happens backstage in the kitchen, ensuing while the theorists quarrel on main stage.

What the kitchen is to Serres, the mixing desk is to Eshun, the sound processing software or the sound recording and sound generating devices of his very sonic practice: a situative area in which implicit and even mythic knowledge dominates and generates, resulting in new discourses, unforeseen in their logic, their thinking figures, their ways of describing and interpreting their actions.

It is after all a theory of practice: a theory in this sense is not completely separable or detached from actual contemporary and highly experienced design and artistic practices. Moreover, following Serres and Eshun, conceptualizing such a theory is actually a design practice in itself, though often less obvious. Both approaches – the one of Serres and the one of Eshun – are in favor of practices that involve intensive engagement with materials, with mingling and mixing, with the experientiality, the sensory and immersive qualities which the mixers and minglers in the studio or in the kitchen might experience.

This specific, highly materialist, quality is for both authors superior to any speech or any theory not grounded in such a practice. Accordingly, all other theories which are mainly grounded in semiotic practices and interpreting traditions are qualified by both writers as strangely logorrhoeic and, after all, uninformed, non-experienced, and meaningless verbal expressions of a will toward theoretical power. Or as Eshun writes boldly and manifesto-like in his foreword to More Brilliant Than The Sun:

Like a headmaster, theory teaches today's music a thing or 2 about life. It subdues music's ambition, reins it in, restores it to its proper place, reconciles it to its naturally belated fate. (Eshun 1998: -004)

In contrast Eshun asserts and praises the specific knowledge and the idiosyncratic, deeply materialist and sensorial practice theories of producers, DJs, or performers:

Instead of theory saving music from itself, from its worst, which is to say its best excesses, music is heard as the pop analysis it already is. Producers are already pop theorists. (Eshun 1998: -004)

Finally, he concludes:

Far from needing theory's help, music today is already more conceptual than at any point this century, pregnant with thoughtprobes waiting to be activated, switched on, misused. (Eshun 1998: -003)

These thoughtprobes are activated and misused, I might add, through being touched and touching, in resonating, in imagining, in sounding and resounding, maybe also in writing. Consequently, it could be almost of a deep epistemological-therapeutical value – in a Wittgensteinian sense – if traditional theories would finally assert that their arguments are also nothing more than some idiosyncratic sensorial arabesques, fictitious ramblings, and even rhapsodic arguing, yet charged with the strange and megalomaniac obsession that their arguments could claim to be of more relevance or even exert some force of (scientific) law greater than any fairy tale, than any song lyrics, any Dadaist jazz scatting or any fantasizing impromptu.

Bluntly speaking, returning now to Serres' specific example, mentioned above – the pondering and politicizing talk of really potent gentlemen in their armchairs, holding a conference – is for Serres obviously of truly lesser value than any concrete action, and, correspondingly, of lesser value than any experienced practice of working slaves and servile women, who are preparing the food and drinks in the kitchen.

Wisdom lies in the body: any analysis succumbs to syrrhesis. Any chemistry of foods is inferior to the art of cooking; and every single art practice is superior to all art theory.[5] The approach of sonic fiction is such a syrrhesis, transcending mere analysis.

3. 1750/2005/2013 and beyond: Sonic fiction as heuristics

I come to the third and final part of my article with a daring drift into the future, a perhaps not-too-far future, including a brief stopover into the year 1750.

So: How could we apply Eshun's approach of sonic fictions for sound studies? And how could we describe its method in positive terms, most likely following Serres' paradigm of syrrhèse?

Perhaps a term such as method (as in research method, method of composing, method of painting) is in general not applicable to the fields of design, art and music, where you find very specific practices. I would prefer to call all these practices generative practices: despite the multifarious differences, these practices share the goals of motivating and inspiring, even of generating manifold follow-up actions, which might then be transformative in a fundamental way. Eshun and Serres share a strong stance against any simple, methodological reduction of their concepts: the term method or μέθοδος means literally a strictly finite way; a μετά όδός, meta-hodos, a way afterwards; a prescription, a recipe to achieve certain results, guaranteed.

In contrast to such a finite and necessarily totally incomplete recipe, all artistic and design practices are, by definition, generative and non-finite, never methodological in the strict sense (unless they are crystallized into some kind of mannerism, which does appear recurrently); such aesthetic practices resemble more of a kind of heuristically-structured process of searching. And, stepping back to 1750, I would like to point out an often overseen detail in the history of aesthetics and art theory: namely, that in this year of 1750, Aesthetica by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, notably its main first chapter, was published. And this chapter bears the title of: Heuristik. (Baumgarten 1750)[6]


Figure 5: Gottlieb Baumgarten: Aesthetica (1750)

Following Baumgarten as one of the founding fathers of the modern discipline of aesthetics, we may conclude, boldly, that any aesthetic reflection might also imply an application of heuristic strategies, which are generating an aesthetic artifact or process in question. So, how could we interpret more explicitly these generative practices in the arts and in design as a very fundamental kind of heuristic? In recent decades the term heuristic has been widely applied by disciplines of the computer sciences, especially within the field of artificial intelligence. In these fields, the application of problem solving and search strategies has been recognized as crucial for any meaningful progress; and it has been a major task to implement heuristics, which are often non-algorithmic, non-reproducible, and non-finite, in applicable algorithms.

In its broad meaning, heuristics encompasses all search processes, all open and indefinite processes, and especially all processes which cannot be described exhaustively, because they are open to future inventions and imaginations, alterations and mutations, open to serendipity and highly aleatorized moments in any research process. Thus, a valid heuristic as such must be capable of generating unforeseeable, surprising, and even unknown, perhaps irritating, and provoking results. The goal of heuristics is to generate a hitherto unimaginable result. All in all, aesthetics as heuristics – as proposed by Baumgarten as early as the 18th century – means that the generative potential of aesthetic practices and aesthetic artifacts as eminent search processes is accentuated.

This constitution of the arts and design as search processes was the main research topic of a study, published in the year 2005 (Schulze 2005). For this study, I conducted field research, observing in a participatory way a total of twelve artistic and design projects coming from rather unconnected artistic fields and scenes, such as visual art, web design, sound art, documentary film, music video, artistic interventions and club music. The study traced how contemporary designers and artists perform their search for aesthetic artifacts in a broad heuristic reflection upon a variety of situational and fundamental aspects of their daily tasks. Being an analysis of practice theories of artists and designers, it turned out to be a study of individual artistic narrations regarding highly contextualized and situational search processes. These individual heuristics consisted of self-reflective practice theories and fictitious sensory narrations and imaginations.

Now, having explored and observed the operation of heuristic fictions within even more artistic processes, I dare to say today: at the core of any heuristics in the arts or in design you will find a highly subjective and idiosyncratic sensory or aesthetic fiction, be it a visual fiction, an algorithmical fiction, an infrastructural fiction, an intermodal fiction, a social or a corporeal fiction or, even simply, a sonic fiction.

However, approaching the end of this article, I would like to leave you with a more specific exploration into how a sonic fiction following Kodwo Eshun could serve as a heuristic for sound studies, as a research field oscillating between the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. What could the positively nameable criteria that define a sonic fiction be, and how might I demarcate the border to distinguish a highly crafted poetic fiction, on the one side, from mere anecdotic ramblings on some listening extravaganza, on the other.

I selected ten criteria, and I put them – leaving the genre of the orderly journal article now completely behind – into the form of a Top 10 List, reminiscent of the well-known genre in the TV nostalgia, Late Night Shows. This list hopefully provides you with the best arguments for the question if and how sonic fictions can be used as a heuristic for sound studies. The following paragraphs present a series of tiny and fragmented narratives of what is typical for and provocative of a sonic fiction. Once again: I will not present a coherent argument nor a forcefully-executed strategy of persuasion, but instead, serve you a heavy side dish of aphoristically abbreviated, condensed, and fragmented inspirations.

Imagine the following paragraphs being spoken by David Letterman himself, or by someone like Frank Zappa, by David Toop, or even by a great researcher and narrator of the strong fictions inherent in the sciences, such as Jonathan Sterne:


Figure 6: Top 10 List

10: Sonic fictions are empirical

Not in the sense of focus groups or lab research, in quantitative or even qualitative research, but they are empirical in an open, anthropological sense: dense and thick with descriptions as any literary essay or as any intense exchange among friends is and as loaded with urgency and repleteness as any inspiring newspaper article or any great lyrics of a pop song are.

9: Sonic fictions are imaginary

They do not construct a scientific truth about the world as a whole or even as concerns a specific sonic artifact, but they give an insight into the resonance of specific sounds in our personal and highly intimate imaginary. This transgressive sphere of imagination does not need to be restricted to postulates of realism, of moral, psychology or even laws of nature; in this sphere of imagination, we all are present, all the time – even now as you are reading these words, even now as I am typing these letters to close this paragraph.

8: Sonic fictions are sensory fictions

The narration of a personal impression of a sound event and its ramifications in our imagination, this narration of being inspired and triggered by sounds and all their effects, is not restricted to solely sonic sensations: we hear, and whilst hearing, we taste, we sense tactile contacts, we see and we smell, we can even feel a sort of kinesthetic vertigo and certain motoric reactions and imaginations. The senses are never separated, although we still like to hold onto this technological and atomistic misunderstanding of the body. The body as a whole is listening and is sensing all the time.

7: Sonic fictions articulate auditory experiences

When we are writing (and, similarly: playing, dancing, singing, painting or filming) a sonic fiction and engaging in these kind of replete, imagined and narrated sensory events, we are given the opportunity to articulate our specific and highly individual auditory experience: we can externalize as artifact that which was, until then, a secluded, intimate experience. And as artifact, our experience can be accessed intersubjectively; it can be discussed, criticized, affirmed, transformed, and it can even be understood.

6: Writing sonic fictions can help to unfold the experiential depth of auditory experiences

The sheer density and richness of a sonic fiction on the one side, but also the hermetic and idiosyncratic character of a sonic fiction on the other side are the necessary prerequisites for unfolding the suggestive depth of an auditory experience. The more such a sonic fiction is oriented towards rather conventional and simple narratives, well-known grammatical (or: iconographical, semiological) structures or postulates for realism, the less it may convey the impression of a vital individual sonic experience. Sonic fictions articulate in excess.

5: Sonic fictions are epistemologically insightful

Insight into a highly individual epistemological process, through listening, understanding and listening again; this insight is granted by sonic fictions.

4: Sonic fictions do inspire other sonic fictions

Sonic fictions do emerge as an inspiration or a provocation of a narrative discourse, a back and forth of telling and re-telling, asking and answering, move and countermove, serve and return, a call and response between narration and counter-narration, unfolding and counter-unfolding, questioning and differentiation, revision and specification. I like to call this: a conversation. A confluence.

3: Sonic fictions tell the untold tales of theory

This conversation attempts to arrive ever closer and closer to an individual sonic experience; it tries to unfold a theoretical, terminological (also: an iconographical or semiological) narrative and a highly tentative approach to a specific theoretical position. While we follow the text, or even a sonic, videographic or choreographic artifact, we might see such a position unfold and formulate itself – not as a perfectly polished, theoretical or philosophical argument as artifact (such as, this article, perhaps, in parts), free of any inner contradictions, ambiguities and frictions. In contrast to such easily consumable and commodified theory products, in the case of a sonic fiction, we do experience a theory in progress.

2: Sonic fictions are narratologically generative

Every sonic fiction – in its strongest sense – transforms the way we write and speak, dance or paint, move or taste about sound: our individual style and vocabulary, our grammatical virtuosity gets to be morphed and fluidized, pressed and hacked, stretched and reversed. Accordingly, a great sonic fiction is often also hard to understand, as it invents and applies radically new means of describing sound with language, in its effort to describe specific sensations and effects in a highly distinctive way. Such sonic fictions explore epistemologically new grounds in reflecting sound and articulating sonic experiences.

1: Sonic fiction is a heuristic to transform and expand our contemporary means of speaking about sound

Sonic fictions open up the field of speaking about sound in general: articulations reflecting individual sonic experiences. They expand our individual as well as our collective potential to articulate (be it via language or other means) auditory and other sensory experiences. They lead us to new and rather different ways of describing and displaying our specific ways of sensing and feeling, and they also lead us toward new ways of entering an exchange about these different ways of feeling and sensing. We may then come to understand each other a very tiny bit better as regards how we might experience and perceive certain sensory events around us, listening and sensing.

* * *

This Late Night Show ends with Flying Lotus. You can read the closing credits for A Night School on Sonic Fiction, as the driving beat of the first track, All In, of Flying Lotus' most recent album Until The Quiet Comes plays.

A year or so has passed since I wrote the entry paragraph of this text. Our daughter now has a pair of younger twin siblings. Right now I am sitting in a train that brings me from one workshop I gave on the heuristics and the insights of sound studies in Innsbruck, Austria, to a lecture I will give tonight in Munich on the concept of an ontology of vibrational force as proposed by Steve Goodman. I am looking forward to see my family again. The sun flickers through the train windows, hot on my skin, blinding on the little screen on which I am writing these lines.

The quiet comes.

“Anyway, I hope all these comments can inspire you to rework your text and submit a smashing and trailblazing essay on sonic fictions.”


1. Goodman writes: “Moreover, these developments should be placed in the wider context of the policing of the electromagnetic spectrum, particularly radio frequencies, but also extending out into the distribution of wireless networks, radar, and other imperceptible rhythms, transmissions, and emissions. The colonization of the inaudible, the investment in unsound research, indicates the expanding front line of twenty-first-century sonic warfare. While hypersonics probes the upper threshold of audibility, which can vary in relation to social segmentations such as age, or researches the neuroscientific effects of combinations of ultrasound with audible frequencies, bass materialist cultures concentrate on the seismological dimension of music, on sonic dominance, in both its physical and incorporeal forces.” (Goodman 2010: 187)

2. “What I seek to form, to compose, to promote – I can't quite find the right word – is a syrrhèse, a confluence not a system, a mobile confluence of fluxes. Turbulences, overlapping cyclones and anticyclones, like on the weather map. Wisps of hay tied in knots. An assembly of relations. Clouds of angels passing. Once again, the flames' dance. The living body dances like that, and all life. Weakness and fragility mark the spot of their most precious secret. I seek to assist the birth of an infant.” (Serres 1995: 122)

3. “We dream indistinctly that a word capable of expressing this confluence might be acclimatized into our tongue. We cannot say concade nor syrrhesis.”(Serres 2009: 160f)

4. “La langue grecque déteste son terme de synchyse, qui devrait dire l'acte de faire couler plusieurs flux dans un même couloir à partir de sources ou de vases différents, confluent qui allie des affluents divers, elle le hait: embrouillage ou enchevêtement, dit-elle, trouble et confusion, inextricable chaos. […] Que la langue immédiate et sauvage ait banni la confusion de la pensée, passe encore, mais que la philosophie de la connaissance, conséquente dans sa conduite, au moins claire en ses énonciations, ait canonisé ce manque à comprendre, cela étonne qui n'a pas horreur des concours liquides. Confondre signifie verser ensemble d'abord, conjoindre en un seul plusieurs flux. Au sens littéral, la confusion se rapproche assez de la solution. […] De même que Socrate, Agathon, Alcibiade parlent d'amour sans le fair jamais, ou qu'ils s'attablent sans manger ou boivent sans goûter, de même ils sont passés directement du porche ou seuil dans la salle du festin, sur les lits, sans visiter un moment l'office. Les esclaves ou les femmes, comme les dieux, se tiennent près du four où a lieu la métamorphose, pendant que les barbares parlent.” (Serres 1985: 174-180) (“Greek abhors the term synchysis, which should describe the act of directing several currents from different sources or urns into the same channel, one confluence uniting numerous affluents. But it merely refers to confusion or entanglement, a chaos that will not be unscrambled. […] I can accept that the primary and immediate tongue should have banished confusion from thought, but anyone who does not hate liquid concourse will be taken aback that the philosophy of knowledge should as a consequence of this have canonized this blind spot. To confuse means, first of all, to pour together, to conjoin several streams into one. Taken literally, confusion sounds rather like a solution. […] Socrates, Agathon and Alcibiades speak of love without ever making love, or sit down to eat without actually eating or drink without tasting; likewise they enter directly from the porch, over the threshold, into the dining area, without ever visiting the kitchens. Like the Gods, slaves and women stand near the stoves, where transformations occur, while the barbarians talk.” (Serres 2009: 161-165))

5. “Quand la science ou le connaître se réduit à l'analyse, les invité au banquet se couchent, dégoûtés, sur des lits d'apparat éloignés, à distance d'ordre et de parole, du foyer où quelque malin génie combine, compose, mêle, crée un nouvel ordre, une autre échelle de sapidité: esclave ou femme aux mains sales qui verse dans un même cratère, comme dans un estomca, des liquides incompatibles. L'analyste hoquette, par degoût de ces personnages barbouillés, par répulsion du bouillon, il aime à vomir. Libérant ainsi son estomac du mélange et de la confusion auxquels il s'adonne.” (Serres 1985: 180f) (“When scholarship or knowledge is reduced to analysis, the guests at the banquet lie down in distaste on their cushions, in a different order and language, keeping their distance from the hearth where some crafty genius combines, composes, blends, creates a new order, a different scale of sapidity: a slave or woman with dirty hands, pouring incompatible liquids into a single crater, as though into a stomach. The analyst gags in disgust at these messy characters, in revulsion at the bubbling broth; he prefers to vomit. Thus emptying his stomach of the mixture and confusion to which he is addicted.” (Serres 2009: 166))

6. To Baumgarten the rather individualistic and anti-systematic approach of philosophical heuristics seemed adequate to analytically describe aesthetics. However, his aesthetic heuristics would not describe the “Ausdrucksmittel”, the means of expression in the arts (he wanted to explore these later in a kind of semiotic of art) or even a “klare Ordnung”, a distinct order, of an artwork (this would be reserved for a textbook on methods). His goal was not to give practical advice; he wanted to give an account “über die Sachen und die Gedanken”, “de rebus et cogitandis”, of art (Aesthetica, §13). Thus, the general procedures, systems and operationalizations of artistic work and craftsmanship are not the field of heuristics. Its domain lies in a subtle and individual definition and description of the objects and forms of reflection in the arts: a fundamental inventio, a true art of invention. (Schulze 2005)


Baumgarten, Alexander (2007). Ästhetik I Band 1: §§ 1-613. Lateinisch-deutsch. Übersetzt, mit einer Einführung, Anmerkungen und Registern herausgegeben von Dagmar Mirbach. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.

Bernal, Martin (ed.) (1987). Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. New Brunswick: Rutgers University.

Drexciya (1995). The Journey Home [CD]. Sheffield: Warp Records.

Eshun, Kodwo (1998). More Brilliant Than The Sun. Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books.

Eshun, Kodwo (1998). Heller als die Sonne. Abenteuer in der Sonic Fiction. (trans. Dietmar Dath). Berlin: ID.

Eshun, Kodwo (2003). “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3/2: 287-302.

Flying Lotus (2012). Until The Quiet Comes [CD]. Sheffield: Warp Records.

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

James, George G. M. (1954). Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians. New York: Philosophical Library.

Serres, Michel (1985). Les Cinq Sens: philosophie des corps mêlés. Paris: Grasset.

Serres, Michel (1992). Die fünf Sinne. Philosophie der Gemische und Gemenge. (trans. Michael Bischoff). Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Serres, Michel (1992). Éclairissements. Cinq entretiens avec Bruno Latour. Paris: Bourin.

Serres, Michel (1995). Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time: Michel Serres with Bruno Latour (trans. Roxanne Lapidus). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Serres, Michel (2009). The Five Senses. A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (trans. Margaret Sankey, Peter Cowley). New York: Continuum Publishers.

Schulze, Holger (2005). Heuristik. Theorie der intentionalen Werkgenese – Theorie der Werkgenese, Band 2. Berlin: Transcript.

Schulze, Holger (ed.) (2012). Gespür. Empfindung. Kleine Wahrnehmungen. Klanganthropologische Studien. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Sun Ra (Actor) & Coney, John (Director). (1974). Space is the Place [DVD]. New York: Plexifilm.

VCMG a.k.a Clarke, Vince & Gore, Martin L. (2011). Spock [CD]. London: Mute Records.

Holger Schulze is visiting professor for sound studies at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Institut für Kulturwissenschaft and associate professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin. He is founding member of the European Sound Studies Association. Recently he published the third and final volume of his Theorie der Werkgenese, a generative theory of artifacts: Das aleatorische Spiel (2000) − Heuristik (2005) − Intimität und Medialität (2012). He was visiting professor at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo as well as lecturer at the Leopold-Franzens-Universität in Innsbruck. He founded the research network Sound in Media Culture in 2010, the book series Sound Studies in 2008, and he is co-editor of the international Journal for historical anthropology Paragrana since 2011. He writes for TEXTE ZUR KUNST, Deutschland radio Kultur, Positionen, de:bug and serves as curator for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin.