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The Critical Agency of the ‘Avatar-I’: Accessing the Silence of the Inaudible

FOUR BY THREE MAGAZINE

The Critical Agency of the ‘Avatar-I’: Accessing the Silence of the Inaudible

SALOME VOEGLIN

Salomé Voegelin


Can we access the plurality of our contemporary world through silence? And to what do the limits of our sonic imagination attest to? Artist and writer Salomé Voegelin re-listens to the body in silence, so as to grant a new agency, whereby she repositions the relationship between the self and others at the edge of the aesthetic and political.


Silence

is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening. This is listening as a generative process not of noises external to me, but from inside, from my body. I am at the centre of it, audible to myself. It reveals to me my own sounds: my head, my stomach, my whole body sounding its simultaneity with my surroundings. The rumbling of my stomach becomes the gurgling of the water pipes, my breathing relates to the humming of the house; inside and out take on equivalence. The sounds are microscopic, amplified in my perception. The quiet creaks, trickles and gurgles of the flat sound through me and generate what I hear. And when there is nothing to hear, so much starts to sound.

November 09, 2010, 11:32pm


Writing this blog entry about silence in November 2010 allowed me to simultaneously consider the relationship between myself as the listening subject and the environment I am listening in, and to open listening towards its imagination: what we might start to hear beyond what apparently sounds. As I read it now, almost six years later, I appreciate the difficulty of the listening ‘I’ staged in such a central manner, as if that I was all that mattered and the equivalence was not sought in order to forge a reciprocal relationship but to assert oneself. I also appreciate that the auditory imagination articulated in the last sentence might be read as an individuated imagination, solipsistic, maybe even selfish, to hear what I want to hear.

However, I do not think that is all I heard then and believe that silence as a condition of equivalence and imagination, while conceptualised and experienced on the body, on the self, does not end there. Rather, the focus on the listening body in silence presents an opportunity to locate and activate an agency which can re-evaluate norms, hierarchies and values that equally have a body, an authoritative ‘I’, but whose status and reality is so pervasive as to be transparent.  This unnamed authority of normative hearing can exist in the impersonal since its agency is evidenced and mirrored in what counts as actually real. It needs no articulation to define the subject or the environment, it is their articulation and its reality is not experiential, generated in the heterogeneity of an inhabited sensibility, but presumes a singular actuality through the certainty of the only reality there could possibly be.

Against this invisible normativity, the transparent ‘I’ of a singular actuality, I see the focus on the body not as a subjective indulgence, but as a necessary relocation of authority, pluralising its possibility and putting its nominal position into doubt, as well as demanding responsibility. The ‘I’ that is audible to itself acknowledges other ‘Is’ and at least understands if not hears their audibility. The ‘I’ of authority on the other hand only hears itself without being audible to itself. Without, in other words, the humility or responsibility for the difference and conflict that makes the self doubt itself and the other count.

Accordingly, I come to understand my focus on the body listening to silence six years ago not as the privileging of an immersive, pre-reflective physicality, but as the activation of the body as ‘avatar-I’, which provides representation to the inaudible and grants it the opportunity to make itself heard and its listening gain influence. The metaphor of the avatar allows the ‘I’ to manoeuvre and reconnect, illuminate and articulate what from the third, the impersonal person remains too dense and immobile and what in the first person appears too emotive and closed-off. Thus, the avatar grants movement and agency, while the ‘I’ keeps a focus on the modesty and openness of the subjectivity that is the locus of that agency.

Silence provides the condition of designing this avatar-self, when it is quiet enough to hear how I sound and how my sound impacts on everything else. However, the ‘I’ is not at the centre of silence but centred by it: I am one self of many and my identity is contingently determined by silence’s quiet demand to be heard and the invisible agency of others’ listening. Thus silence, as the conceptual and metaphorical condition of hearing oneself, is a becoming audible to oneself in one’s relationship with others and presents actuality as a plurality of possibilities within which we negotiate not as transparent selves and absolute others, but as contingent differences through whose antagonism the transparent ‘I’ loses its hegemony and discipline and the world gains its socio-political dimensions.

I am one self of many and my identity is contingently determined by silence’s quiet demand to be heard and the invisible agency of others’ listening

Therefore, what could have been read as self-centred indulgence, which ‘reveals to me my own sounds’, draws out a subjectivity that is aware of its contingency as a contingency with others, people and things, to whom it connects not through the self-certainty of meaning, but via the sensitivity of a fragile exchange.

Silence produces not the sound of communication, but a burden of hearing and creates the condition to hear oneself not in order to rest on a self-identical listening, but to come to understand the possibility of others, and to interact with them through one’s own possibility. Silence compels me to work out of its dense and unarticulated mate­riality into sense and meaning to be shared and spoken. However, the sonic subject in silence knows that she deals with fragile associations that produce misunderstandings and only occasionally meet in fleeting moments of shared meaning, rather than on an a priori language base. Accordingly, silence demands a language that is not an a priori construction of words that order things according to pre-existing criteria, but passing vocabularies that encounter meanings often overheard in the din of a noisier environment.

The conceptualisation of the avatar-I provides a means and location to hear the world beyond that which is mirrored in the actuality of the perceived real and its language, where its plural and less audible possibility sounds; and it illuminates the ‘I’ not for itself, but for its agency to illuminate these less audible and even inaudible subjectivities and things and its sensitivity to the articulation of the overlooked and the ignored. And so the selves of listening function not simply as alternative centres of power and determination, but as things amongst things, with the modesty of their own doubt and the responsibility to listen out for what cannot make itself heard.

In this way the subject, the body does not perform a mode of self-assertion, but presents a ‘device’ to access the plurality of a contemporary world that is not certain and actual, but permanently in doubt and that needs the body as avatar to engage with its current assertion to scrutinise its origins and ideologies without losing itself in a self-certain and self-limited real, but able to find an open engagement towards an inexhaustible sonic world. Thus the subject as avatar is not engaged in a silence for itself, as a meditative self-audition, but as a thing with agency that is unexceptional yet carries responsibility.

Consequently, any auditory imagination: ‘and if there is nothing to hear so much starts to sound’ is not a selfish expectation of what I want to hear, but an awareness of the edge of the aesthetic and the political: ‘It is a portal into a plurality of worlds that are all variants of this world but which we can neither see nor hear because we do not know how to or we do not want to’ (Sonic Possible Worlds, 174).

The fragile associations of silence make us experience not the limit of sound, but the limit of our listening capabilities or of our wish to hear and our imagination grants access to and makes thinkable that, which cannot make itself count in the normatively actual soundscape of the world. The quiet sounds that trigger my imagination break through the boundaries of the apparently non-existent and allow the avatar-I to manoeuvre and connect what for aesthetic, ideological, as well as economical and socio-political reasons is excluded from the realm of a singular actuality.

Therefore, my auditory imagination is not an indulgent fantasy, but a responsibility towards the excluded. It is not a hearing for me, but the responsibility to listen out for what cannot make itself heard. Our sonic imagination arises from the limit of perception and demonstrates how it is not a limit of reality, but a limit of experience and expectations: it is the limit of humanity, not of the world.

 

Salomé Voegelin is a Swiss artist and writer engaged in listening as a socio-political practice of sound. She is the author of Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art and Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. Voegelin is a Reader in Sound Arts at London College of Communication, UAL and has a PhD from Goldsmiths College, London University.

 

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