Should we Read Sound?

How does anthropologist acquire the sense of sonic landscape, soundscape around her? According to Vannini, Waskul, and others, one of the methods at least would look like indulging into the after-dinner peaceful nap (for a non-ethnographic eye of a non-vigilant observer):

“I sit back in my chair and close my eyes, immediately elevating my awareness of my soundscape. The longer I sit with it, the deeper into my awareness of the soundscape I penetrate, as if my ability to perceive sound were a slowly
opening cone, expanding out in all directions. When I close my eyes my awareness of sound expands, and then the expansion expands, as if my awareness reaches out into the world, and after it is there perceiving for a bit, a more refined awareness expands further out ready to wrap itself around ever greater levels of detail. It is intense somatic work.” (Vannini, Waskul, others, 2010, 329)

Some might argue that the use of chair in this situation does not adhere with the methods the famous fathers of anthropology professed, and that hummock works better. There are two competing schools of thought, and no agreement on this important issue has been reached yet.

The next important question is, how do we describe and perceive a sonic landscape in detachment from all other characteristics of environment, to the description of which we are more attuned? Even in the article specifically focusing on “sonic charisma of the favela,” on music and sound maintaining boundaries “in the dense urban space,” Martijn Oosterbaan starts creating the affective texture of the space with “It was very hot and humid but what mostly kept me awake those nights was the loud music and the noises coming from the festivities in the favela.” (Oosterbaan, 2009, 81). Does the sense of heat and humidity add to the sound of music keeping one awake at night? Why the sound is important to us not per se but through the things it indicates? We are fascinated by “the performative dimensions of sound,” with “sounds of both the nonsemioticized and semioticized variety” which “function as acts, not unlike speech acts.” (Vannini, Waskul, others, 2010, 328), not with sound like sound. We want to read it, want to ascribe meaning to it, as opposed to be in it, as sounds suggests.

The sound, however, resist reading, is not easily explainable, not interpretable. It just is and it produces affect: “When I attend to it, I am flooded with affect and meanings which seemingly arrange themselves across my consciousness.” (Vannini, Waskul, others, 2010, 330)


Martijin Oosterbaan, Sonic Supremacy: Sound, Space and Charisma in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Critique of Anthropology, March 2009 vol. 29 no. 1 81-104

Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, Simon Gottschalk and Carol Rambo. Sound Acts: Elocution, Somatic Work, and the Performance of Sonic Alignment Journal of Contemporary Ethnography June 1, 2010 39: 328-353

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