Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies

by Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks



Sonic Literacy as Embodied Knowledge

Technological Literacies of Sound

Classroom Opportunities in Sonic Literacy

Voices in Soundscapes

Voice and Gender

Voice and Culture

Voices of Social Conscience



Works Cited

Video Clips





2. Sonic Literacy as Embodied Knowledge

As many Western philosophers from Plato to Jacques Derrida have noted, Westerners tend to be phonocentric, quick to ascribe presence and immediacy to speech, even recorded speech. Perhaps it's the vibrational and ephemeral quality of sound that tends to envelop and emphasize our embodied sense of presence in the world and in ourselves. Indeed, because sound is composed of atoms and matter, we often hear with our whole bodies. Auditory culturalist, Bruce Smith explains,

Periodic waves of air molecules strike against the listener's eardrums and set up vibrations inside the body. If the waves are strong enough (as, for example, when a large drum is being struck), the vibrations can be felt in the viscera of the gut as well as in the ears. (128)

Also, as periodic waves, sounds dissolve into nothing in a way that images and writing do not. This ongoing dissolution can make sound seem more active, more present and alive, because it is so temporary. Walter Ong famously argues that despite (and perhaps because of) its evanescence, sound is "more real or existential than other sense objects" and "related to present actuality rather than to past or future." "It must," he continues, "emanate from a source here and now discernibly active, with the result that involvement with sound is involvement with the present, with here-and-now existence and activity" (Ong 111). Because of its physical vibrations and here-and-now qualities, we tend to attribute authenticity and verisimilitude to sound.

Perhaps another reason for our tendency to equate sound with activity and presence is both our ability to produce sound and inability to control it. Most of us can produce sound more easily and quickly than we can produce images; however, our control over the impact of sound is more limited than our control of images. For while we have the ability contract our ear muscles to lessen the vibrations, we cannot yet close our ears completely (Matthews 5). Our lack of earlids becomes more of a concern as our environments grow increasingly louder--a trend far more threatening to our physical well being than the blooming billboards and skylines. Media theorist Arjen Mulder argues that we are taking this general trend for granted, claiming "Our ease of hearing is the true reason why it is so frequently said that we live in a visual culture, but the increase in the number of images over the past century is insignificant compared with the rise of sound levels in the city and countryside. Sound is the blind spot of visual culture..." (196).The problem, then, for a critical sonic literacy is creating enough silence to hear the increasing rumblings of our cultural soundscape.

Canadian composer and educator, R. Murray Schafer emphasizes the importance of listening and of perceiving our cultural soundscapes or "sonic environments," claiming, "[The] general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of the society" (7). Acoustic environments point to many meaningful elements--some subtle, some blaring--of cultures echoing in a certain location. Listening, unlike the largely involuntary and passive (unconscious) process of hearing, is the development of sonic literacy; it requires the listener to focus actively, to draw on knowledge of past experiences with sound and to understand all listening as culturally situated. And, as Cheryl Glenn describes, silence has decidedly active rhetorical functions in various cultural settings (2004). Listening is an art, a conscious process of observing and defining sound. And like the art of writing, it is affected by one's place in and knowledge of a particular sonic environment as much as one's previous experiences with sonic forms.

The act of focusing on particular sound sources occurs through cultural and ideological frameworks. For example, whether we identify and understand a sound--like the deep bass backbeat of a car stereo--as intrusive or part of a whole composition depends upon our cultural and ideological location, what Slavoj Zizek calls our "generative matrix." As a "generative matrix" constantly in flux, our ideological location regulates the relationship between what is audible and inaudible, imaginable and unimaginable (Zizek 1). Sonic literacy develops consciousness toward this changing relationship and toward understanding the sounds themselves as contested territory. 2   Recognizing both resonances and dissonances as cultural and individual are key to what we consider critical sonic literacy.


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