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

Siberian Soundscape

I am thinking about soundscape of my Siberian village, what it’s like, what marks it. Cows mooing, cats meowing, dogs barking, roosters coo-ca-re-cooing (this is how roosters’ cry is transcribed in this part of the world). A noise of occasional car or a motorcycle. I was thinking about problematizing “submergence” the way Helmreich problematizes “immersion” in his article (Helmreich, 2007). Before the village of Anosovo was built, several smaller villages were submerged by water. By going to the field, quite analogously to Helmreich immersion, I am going to submerge myself in life there. Submergence is also the falling deeper down in layering of time, as opposed to resurfacing. Anosovo might be called to be submerging into oblivion, nothingness, dissolving, dissipating. Falling behind, backwards, as the world goes into supposed future. Concurrently, it is very possible that Anosovo is eternal. Some zaimka – small settlement, perhaps no more than several houses – existed on these lands long before Soviet industrialization. The historic epochs could roll, eclipsing each other, somewhere there, far far away, in cities, in Moscow, in Saint Petersburg, in Paris, in Berlin, in New York, in Tokyo, but this secret, secluded, unexposed place would proceed with its quiet existence in its own enclosure.

Thinking through what Kohn calls “transspecies ecology of selves” (Kohn, 2007, 7), I strive to further understand the complexity of the interactions between humans and dogs in the village of Anosovo. The whole task of the anthropology of life, which Kohn formulates as “An anthropology of life questions the privileged ontological status of humans as knowers.” (Kohn, 2007, 6), seems to be noble enough to try to engage with, yet at the same time presents the conundrum akin the philosophical conundrum: “How can I think about something objectively, if in doing so I could never leave the limits of my own thinking process?” The anthropology of life’s task is impossible to complete from the human point of view because we never cease to be humans, and in challenging our status of knowers we never cease to be knowers who challenge their own status. When the anthropology of life could be written truly from the position of the animal or robotic agency, in that it would be truly the anthropology of the anthropos, preserving the initial disposition of the discipline, that of the gazer, who does not belong to the community, observing the community. Kohn notes that the Runa see dogs as having souls, since the subjectivity is constructed for them through the contact with other beings, humans and otherwise (Kohn, 2007).

“Through a process that Brian Hare and colleagues (2002) call “phylogenetic enculturation,” dogs have penetrated human social worlds to such an extent that they exceed even chimpanzees in understanding human communication.” (Kohn, 2007, 9). While largely it seems as if humans and dogs ignore each other in day-to-day interactions, nevertheless they depend on each other. Same holds true in regard to the Siberian village. There are understandings what constitutes a good dog and what does not. The politics of giving names to dogs, interactions, and other details, are to be defined once I am there. The Siberian village seems to be ideal place for attentive attunements to what Kohn calls “transspecies ecology of selves” (Kohn, 2007, 7), where gatherers, hunters, fishers, domesticated and wild animals, birds, insects, plants, and mushrooms form multispecies community.


Helmreich, Stefan. “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 621–641. 2007

Kohn, Eduardo. “How dogs dream: Amazonian natures and the politics of transspecies engagement.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 3–24, 2007

Accented Speech

Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.

The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.

Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.

The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.

The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.

As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:

“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007

Baffling Disparity Between the Sound of the Word and its Surprising Meaning

“Stéphane Mallarmé, amazingly sensitive to the sound texture of language, observed in his essay Crise de vers that the word ombre is actually shady, but ténèbres (with its acute vowels) suggests no darkness, and he felt deeply deceived by the perverse attribution of the meanings ‘day’ to the word jour and ‘night’ to the word nuit in spite of the obscure timbre of the former and the light one of the latter.” (Jakobson, 1965, 34)
I surely did have this kind of wonder before, and articulated it.

Some Words

Some words mean just what
You would expect,
Like, onomatopoeia,
Struggle, breakthrough, dance, cooing,
Coconut, disguise, and latte.
They are transparent
In their look, sound, and the path of syllables alternating
Between stressed and unaccented
In an enduring rational succession;
On the chessboard of vowels and consonants
Former and latter
Measured in a reasonable balance.
Other words
Are just more elusive.
They seem to pretend to appear to be something
They are really not.
For instance, love*,
And dash`.
*evidently, «love» should mean «a sort of yellow stretchy marmalade,» based on the way it sounds and looks
°a screeching of the wheels on the sharp turn
^tin pipes of the old red-brick houses
`a small golden fish hiding under the green log in a gleaming round pond shadowed by a willow
How much this feeling is amplified when you study a language that is not your native, is hard to convey. When I started speaking English, it was a constant source of feeling deceived and cheated on. Clearly “itch,” “notch,” “luminosity,” and “glory” are on the right places; but what about “vanguard” (a heavy fog), “darkness” (whiskers), “agglomeration” (a gluten-free sweet of sorts) and other ridiculous things? One can imagine a text written in this manner, but for it to be read it should be supplied with an ample commentary produced by the author.

Saussurean guess of “arbitrariness” of assigning the meaning to sound is not of much help. How does this arbitrariness come to life? Who orchestrates it and how? Language is perfected by all its speakers day and night, now how can it have this vortexes of inexplicable disparity between the sound and its meaning?

Jakobson, Roman. (1965) “The Quest for the Essence of Language.” Diogenes. 13(51): 21-37.

Nostalgic Audio Objects

“In Britain until the Second World War, the broadcast announcer was an anonymous authoritative (ruling-class) voice.” (Williams, 1988, 39)

One of the broadcast announcer on the Soviet radio during the Second World War, Yuri Levitan, had a velvet baritone with metal overtones. His voice embodied the power of the Soviet state. Levitan was an incarnation of the Soviet Leviathan. His intonations were triumphant and conquering, unwavering and suspenseful, and affective: prompting the listener to act and feel.

Please listen to this broadcast. The music of the radio was a familiar interlude. Then the voice of Levitan interjects and sounds like a voice of fate: “Attention! Moscow speaks.” This is the announcement of the German attach on Russia on June, 22, 1941.

This kind of presentation was a general mode of radio presentation at the time. For people back then, Levitan was almost a family member, a party comrade. Now, his voice is a nostalgic audio object.


Willliams, Raymond. (1988) Television: Technology and Cultural Forms.