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