Thinking aloud through the archives that sound

Below are the details of a recent workshop held by the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, where I am currently completing my doctoral studies.

By Niklas Zimmer

From August 22 to 24 this year, the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (APC) hosted a workshop, led by research fellow Dr Anette Hoffmann, under the title ‘sound/archive/voice/object.’ True to the trans-disciplinary spirit of APC, the range of academic positions present was heterogeneous, but beyond that, this workshop attracted a significant set of participants from beyond the institution: over three days in the much-loved Jon Berndt thought space, the voices of radio activism, sound art, turntableism and composition for film and theatre cross-faded with those of ethnomusicology, social anthropology, fine art and historical studies.

PASS (Pan African Space Station) live radio broadcast at Africa Centre, Long Street on 23 September 2009

Dr Hoffmann’s carefully staged set of daily readings, gentle chairing and inspiring listening experiences of samples of ethnographic phonograph-recordings from Berlin’s Lautarchiv enabled us to begin thinking through the subject of sound in all its complexity. While ‘visual culture’ with its associated tropes has become commonplace, the same cannot be said for ‘sonic’ or ‘aural culture’ – the need for understanding sound (historically, psychologically, physiologically, etc.) is immanent, particularly when dealing with records of human subject research in the archive.

‘… sound is a product of the human senses and not a thing in the world apart from humans. Sound is a little piece of the vibrating world.’ (Jonathan Sterne)

As with other investigations into reproduction technologies developed in the 19thcentury (such as photography), a detailed understanding of the political, scientific and cultural drives that gave birth to them in the first place is key to surfacing relevant, contemporary perspectives on the audio archive. Studies into sound – and in particular the ethnographic voice recording – have so far remained in relative specialist isolation. In contrast to this, studies of visuality – and in particular ethnographic photographic portraiture – have been gaining interdisciplinary popularity. Beyond the misalignments of comparison between the two, and despite the multitude of overlaps between the orders of the eye and the ear, it becomes clear that the realms of the aural (or sonic) and the visual do require different sets of analytical tools.

‘The vocabulary may well distinguish nuances of meaning, but words fail us when we are faced with the intimate shades of the voice, which infinitely exceed meaning. (…) faced with the voice, words structurally fail.’ (Mladen Dolar)

Passive hearing and active listening involve a complex range of affective and cognitive processes which are incomparable to those associated with any other sense (other than perhaps touch) – any discussion of differences in technology for the capture and representation of aural as opposed to visual phenomena can only be secondary to this. In the shared process of active listening at the beginning of each workshop morning, the group sensed its way into some of the qualities of sound, particularly those of the speaking voice. We discovered that we are able to hear much more than we tend to trust ourselves to. The ethnographic and linguistic phonographic recordings of prisoners of war in WWI Germany from the Humboldt University’s Lautarchiv in Berlin revealed to us as listeners a small, but powerful glimpse into the potential of a different way of working with archival material. Because the transcripts and translations of the recordings were withheld until after the first listening-through, we relied on our own emotional and intellectual inferences in order to engage the questions that these ‘sound objects’ from the past carried into our present space. Listening engages us in a different way of knowing, as Dr Hoffmann pointed out, and ‘if the process of enunciation points at the locus of subjectivity in language, then voice also sustains an intimate link with the very notion of the subject.’ (Mladen Dolar)

Generally, the bigger paradigm of any research interest will at first tend towards sacrificing the individual voice to generalisation and dissection rather than a ‘regime of care’ as Prof Hamilton would remind us: sounds, in particular human voices on record are always re-presented in a web of power-relations, some of which are near-impossible to address, let alone shift. This becomes most paradoxical in thinking though the subaltern speaking position in the archive, where not only the act of recording has been an act of violence, but where the act of listening itself can be an act of othering and continued silencing. In view of this (in sound of this?), the best possible approach to reaching the necessary ‘audio condition’ from which to push at the limits of subaltern positionalities in the archive seems to be continuum of analysis, a reverence paid to the minutiae of humanity in the material. This was a recurring moment, a leitmotiv in our three days of sound studies: only a wide range of disciplines working together can actually achieve the description of the necessary aspects (aesthetic, ethical, cultural, historical, political, psychological) from which to consider a relevant engagement with the archive that sounds.

Cross-posted from the APC Gazette.

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