Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Presence Of Baudrillard / The Absence Of Baudrillard

(I set out to create a sound art piece for a conference on Jean Baudrillard. This blog entry collates some of the thoughts I encountered on the way.)

Baudrillard's writings address a predominantly visual world. He wrote of objects in mirrors, took photographs of absence, and sharply probed a hyper-saturated mediascape that was dominantly ocular. In an interview for CTHEORY in 1995 he was asked to comment on sound as distinct from image. His response was to conflate the two into the "audio-visual", admitting that "the sphere of sound, the acoustic sphere, audio, is really more alien to me than the visual."

Investigating sound through Baudrillard draws a blank. But from this emptiness I will construct the scaffolding for my piece, like a spider's web in the night. (You walk unknowingly through the darkness and feel its sticky grip across your cheek.)

For Baudrillard, sound is out there beyond the dichotomy of "self" and "other" or "object" and "subject" -- dialectics he did a great deal to investigate and disturb through piercing essays. No, sound is beyond theory, sound is the alien. It comes from a place outside our system of the solar, beyond the event horizon that's defined only in terms of light. We might combine sound with the ocular into the "audio-visual", but that only allows it past our defences without consideration of its characteristics, methods, or purpose. Sound arrives on our shore as the secret stowaway.

Why is sound the alien? This requires more elaboration.

It seems to me the reason the sonic is so under-theorized in most philosophical circles is precisely because it is so present. There is still a predisposition to discuss sight (and the visual world that sense interprets) in terms of the purely mathematical, hence the fascination with virtual reality, the 3D modeling of something as good as the real thing. The sloppy metaphors of the brain as a computer come about by ignoring all senses other than sight. (And by forgetting that the computer was modeled on the brain, not the other way around -- but I digress.)

How does sound get outside this equation? Simple: sound is somatic. Sound is interpreted by a mechanical device in our ear that we cannot in any way think of as an analogue of a computing machine. The sense of hearing is a throwback to a Victorian mechanistic conception of the universe. Our ear is a wind-up toy, with a little hammer, a little anvil, a tiny stirrup all ticking away. (The only missing component is a small bird to emerge on the hour and cry the time.)

Our sense of hearing is carved out of bone. It's not nearly clean enough for positivists -- fluid jostling around in spiral cavities, hair cells waving in the interior tide. Whatever happened to light rays beaming out of our eyes, piercing and penetrating the world? Instead we are hollow vessels awaiting vibrations from forces we cannot even see. Sound brings our selves back to ourselves.

Sound is of the body. We hear with more than our ears. We feel things in our gut. And this makes it very difficult to theorize this most potent of the senses. So even the best (Baudrillard) do not. They turn a blind eye -- or is it a deaf ear?

My memorial to Baudrillard, How To Disappear Completely, plays with the idea of silence as a rich vessel. And while I am sure John Cage would be pleased, my own utilisations of silence is more indebted to the essays on picnolepsy by Paul Virilio. Which is to say: the silence I strive for is the utter and complete emptiness of the unconscious mind, the silence heard in death and complete oblivion. Cage's silence was only defined in opposition to notation and the academy. It was the chatter of audience and the rustle of musicians in a concert hall. That is nowhere near silent enough!

It could be that the only way to reach this utter silence is to overwhelm the ear with volume. The silence of the deaf.

The piece I will play at the conference is "The Absence of Baudrillard". It is made entirely from this material: a short phrase spoken by Baudrillard, notably the word "absence" itself. This sound fragment will be manipulated by a stochastic process to create a unique event from this sonic "signature".

The piece will start with nothing (silence) and end with nothing (intelligible speech for 2.5 seconds). In between there will be an awful lot of something else.

This may have an attentive audience or may get ignored; I don't know. The outcome rather depends on the venue, the sound levels and how I choose to diffuse the sonic components. Nonetheless one principle will be followed:

"The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us — unintelligible. And, if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible." -- Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime (p. 105)

Against unintelligible thought we can close out minds. Against unintelligible images we close our eyes. But against unintelligible sound (that alien on our doorstep) we have no defence. For though we have two eyelids, no lids our ears were granted!

"Sound is what happens when we aren't listening."
-- Robin Parmar


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