Auricular Beliefs

I’ve been revisiting some of the cultural theory that I consulted for my dissertation years ago (I know that sounds ominous; the rest of this post won’t be dense and dry, I promise). I’ve been interested in how to advocate for bell instruments for the future without falling into the audiovisual litany as described by Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.*

What’s an audiovisual litany? Well, a litany (think “litany of saints”) is a repetitive series of religious invocations or supplications (“St. So-and-so, pray for us,” repeated many, many times). The audiovisual litany is a series of opposing beliefs associated with seeing vs. hearing. These dichotomies of belief are so ingrained in our western hemisphere that they mimic the depth of religious faith. Hence, Sterne’s term “litany.”

-hearing is spherical, vision is directional;**
-hearing immerses its subject, vision offers a perspective;
-sounds come to us, but vision travels to its object:
-hearing is concerned with interiors, vision is concerned with surfaces:
-hearing involves physical contact with the outside world, vision requires distance from it;
-hearing places us inside an event, seeing gives us a perspective on the event;
-hearing tends toward subjectivity, vision tends toward objectivity;
-hearing bring us into the living world, sight moves us toward atrophy and death;
-hearing is about affect, vision is about intellect;
-hearing is a primarily temporal sense, vision is a primarily spatial sense;
-hearing is a sense that immerses us in the world, vision is a sense that removes us from it

If you think carefully about how our senses work, you eventually realize that these dichotomies don’t hold. Vision is not the objective, distancing sense described here, nor is our sense of hearing more subjective and thus more connected to our emotions. For example, the direction from which a sound comes at us does change our perception of it, so it is also directional like our sense of vision (spherical vs. directional dichotomy). It’s true that sounds can move our emotions, but so can visual cues, such as a provocative work of art or a beloved familiar home (affect vs. intellect). A person’s voice is a manifestation of the mechanical works of the internal diaphragm, lungs, vocal cords, and sinus cavities, yet the part we see of a person is also a reflection of what’s physically underneath, such as bone structure (interior vs. exterior dichotomy). The interior vs. exterior distinction breaks down when we think about it metaphorically too—the quality of a person’s voice may not indicate her mental life any more than her facial expressions and demeanor.

In arguments for the value of bell instruments, advocates have ascribed to these notions. Bell instruments can help build community, for example, through the shared musical experience. This implies that outdoor music (more so than a visual public artwork, perhaps) can immerse us in that environment, rather than giving us the easy option to distance ourselves from it. The reason of community building also implies that bell music is more capable of arousing emotion, emotions that help create a shared experience that can bind us to others in the vicinity.

I too have argued for the value of bells in terms consistent with this audiovisual litany. I wonder if there is a way to think about the value of bells for the future without falling back to reasons like their ability to arouse emotion and immerse us in that particular context. If these are not unique features of sound in general and bells in particular, what are?

*Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
**This list taken from Sterne, The Audible Past, p. 15.

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