Friday, January 04, 2019

Towards a Platial Phenomenology of Sound

Place-bound and time-bound in evening rain
And bound by a sound which does not change,
Except that it begins and ends,
Begins again and ends again

-- from "Human Arrangement" by Wallace Stevens



In English we have a simple adjective, "spatial", that means “of or relating to space”. But there is no similar word that means “of or relating to place”. This article will briefly explain why space gets so much attention in Western philosophy, while place falls by the wayside. I will conclude by proposing the neologism "platial" as a useful corrective.

We could begin with the Classical philosophers, but let's cut to the chase and skip to the birth of modernism. The inestimably influential ideas of René Descartes (1596–1650) deserve primary attention. His Principles of Philosophy (1644), was the summation of his thinking on nature and its laws. It's generally considered the founding text of modern physics.

In this book, Descartes conceptualised matter in two categories: thought ("things pertaining to the mind") and extension ("things pertaining to extended substance or body"). In this reductive scheme, objects have no qualities other than "extension in length, breadth, and depth". Space too is only extension. And place is nothing more than “situation”, the relative positioning of objects in space.

Isaac Newton (1642–1726), John Locke (1632–1704), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) developed these ideas by imposing a measurement grid on the three dimensions. For them, space is an isometric, homogenous substrate in which objects exist at distinct and measurable locations (specified by coordinates). Place has no special qualities that might distinguish it from space; it's a concept reduced to insignificance. This Cartesian rationalism became the bedrock of modern thought, providing a philosophy that remains dominant in the popular imagination today.

Rationalism went hand-in-hand with an ocularcentric view of the world, largely created by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), who developed our modern concept of perspective. Consider also how our language privileges sight. An “eyewitness” is to be trusted, whereas conversations merely “overheard” are suspect. We know that “seeing is believing” and use the phrase “I see” to denote understanding. As McLuhan noted, our wisest thinkers are called “visionaries” or “seers”.

As a sound artist, I am interested in challenging ocularcentrism. Others do this by promoting the ear as somehow "truer" than the eye, more embodied, more interior, more relational. I prefer to overturn this entire hierarchy, by calling into question the very idea of a ranking of the senses. In fact, I deny the accepted knowledge that there are individuated senses (see Tim Ingold). For example, we hear not only with our ears, but our skin. We localise sound with the aid of our eyes (consider the ventriloquist illusion). Balance and hearing are intimately related in the inner ear. And so on.

To challenge Cartesian rationalism, I foreground place over space. Edward Casey has termed this radical belief, that “place is the first of all things”, the Archytian Axiom. He has traced a line of thought from Archytas of Tarentum (428–347 BCE) through Aristotle, to Bachelard and other contemporary thinkers.

For some years my works have highlighted engagements with place, through diverse practices that include field recording, creative writing, and image-making. An example is my installation "In that place, the air was very different" (read more here). In these pursuits, I prefer to use sound as a verb, to emphasise its ephemeral temporality, it's always-just-coming-into-being. And its fading away again, into the imperceptible.

"Sounding place" is a way to activate place in my own perception, so that the qualities of my situation vis-a-vis place are heightened. This activity is not only about sound. But it's nice, for a change, to employ a term that doesn't derive from the visual.

Places are formed by the accretion of my perception, and of others before me. At the same time, the physical and social parameters of place constrain the activities I am likely to engage in. Neither force has precedence; they work in a complex, a matrix.

I might imagine that I am the first to chart a course through the long grass. But the lie of the land, the strength and play of wind from beyond, the swirl of tree branches on my horizon, the knowledge of a destination somewhere ahead... these all tend my path to follow other footsteps. On later excursions, when the trail is more obvious, any other route might seem like too much effort. At these moments the constraints have the upper hand. Until the path seems too familiar... and I am once again encouraged to deviate.

Can this phenomenology of place be reduced to "extension in length, breadth, and depth"? No. Place is not simple measurable space. Place is not homogenous, isometric, infinitely extensible. This idea is, frankly, ridiculous. And its persistence only points to a long-standing desire to promote the simplest possible solution to a problem, despite all evidence to the contrary.

To return to our departure point: the word "spatial". Since "space" is insufficient to describe our rich, multivalent experiences with place, a new adjective is needed. I propose "platial" as a simple, comprehensible alternative. (And if it's a homophone for "palatial", that's OK too. Place is the palace of being-in-the-world.)

Research reveals that Platial was a collaborative cartographic website that existed from 2004 to 2010. Since then, the term has been used only infrequently in information science (an example being McKenzie et al. 2016).

But the earliest occurrence is in a paper by Stuart Elden, in a discussion of Heidegger and Plato's Timaeus. Elden remarks: "There is something to be said for working with 'place' and 'placing', coining the neologism 'platial' to reflect its use in adjectival forms". This seems eminently sensible. And coincidentally (?) both writers figure heavily in my continuing research (of which this is only one gloss).

We will sail our ship from here, from a place we can never fully apprehend. Our platial voyage will create encounters that are different for everyone, yet constrained by the community we form. No matter our velocity, we will not escape this embedded relationship with our world. Because our world is what we live through.


References

Casey, Edward S. 1998. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Descartes, René. 1983 (1644). Principles of Philosophy, trans. V. R. Miller and R.P. Miller. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Elden, Stuart. 1999. "Heidegger’s Hölderlin and the importance of place". Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 30.3, 258–274.

Grant McKenzie, Martin Raubal, Krzysztof Janowicz, and Andrew Flanagin. 2016. "Provenance and credibility in spatial and platial data". Journal of Spatial Information Science 2016.13, 101–102.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2005 (1962). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith. London: Routledge.

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