in conversation with Salomé Voegelin
How does sound relate to our shared reality and particularity in the world? Artist and writer Salomé Voegelin talks to four by three about her book Sonic Possible Worlds, Lewis' possible world theory, Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, and the importance of listening.
"In the ephemerality of sound the horizon between what exists and what does not is in doubt. The inaudible, understood as that in the work and the world, which for reasons of expectation, knowledge, and ideology we cannot access but that nevertheless influences our perception, should at least be assumed to be there. We need to talk about what we hear to prize it away from the restrictions of an analytic language and to articulate its own designation: and we need to talk about the inaudible as the possible impossible, which is once sounded and still has consequences, and which is what sounds now but cannot or do not want to hear, but which one day, when we know to inhabit its environment, becomes the possible and the actual enabled by and hiding another inaudible yet again.
The inaudible is the verge of the soundscape. It is its 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; and it is the criticality of the artwork, it is its radical edge over what we know, inviting us to sense beyond “what is” and “what might be” the possibility of impossibility: the invisible inaudible slices of the work, whose presence we might sense but whose materiality we cannot grasp.
The possible impossibility of the work is what gives it the strength to continually push at the boundaries of aesthetic knowledge to move us into that which we deliberately or inadvertently exclude from our sense of the work, without becoming itself audible. It is an aesthetic force rather than a sound whose sound once revealed hides and enables others still.
The possible impossibility of the world is its political, ideological and social horizon, beyond which we pretend not to see anything even once we start to hear it rumble. It is the ground beneath which are hidden those things that do sound but which remain unheard and those that once did sound but have become silent, but often not yet mute.
Sound work that seeks the inaudible anew all the time embraces it passing ephemerality; it embraces its own essence in disappearance and accepts its fleeting property not as a structural necessity but as a generative designation. This is a predicative name that does not describe “what is”, “what might be,” and “what is not allowed to be,” but makes us sense it. Such work is aesthetico-political in that it not only encourages us to see the actual and hear the possible expand its vision, but encourages us to listen to the inaudible in the work and beyond – into the future variance of the world.
It is the artists’ job to open the possibility of the impossible, and it is the writers’ responsibility and the listeners’ challenge to engage in the inaudible to tease it out, not to come to an ideal audibility but to constantly work on the boundary between the audible and the inaudible, to make the impossible re-sound the possible and pluralize the actual". (Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 174-5)
The title of your latest book alludes to David K. Lewis’ Possible World Theory, in which he advocates through modal realism a plurality of worlds. How do you relate in your writing possible worlds to sound? And what do you take from Lewis and other philosophers that have written about the possibility or impossibility of the world’s pluralisation?
Salomé Voegelin: It would be impossible to articulate compellingly how I get to the notion of sonic possible worlds in a short answer. The development from possible world theory, via acoustic ecology, sound art and music into the notion of sonic possible worlds is staged slowly and deliberately between texts and works, over the course of 5 chapters. The concept and reality of sonic possible worlds take time to unfold, to be imaginable and inhabitable. However, I can tell you about my influences and inspirations. David K. Lewis is certainly one of the central theoretical influences. He lends himself to this project, because of his very radical notion of possible world theory. He is what I consider to be a radical realist, meaning that for him every world that is possible is an actual possible world for somebody. The authority over the actuality of a certain world is thus given to the inhabitant, the person whose world it is, rather than to an absolute and universal sense of real actuality pitched against mere possibility. This proposition, with its responsibilities and problems, is what makes Lewis’ possible world theory attractive to me. And so while I do not engage the more mathematical elements of his modal realism, it is this radicalism that allows me to run with his theory and find my own articulations on possibility in relation to sound and listening.
The freedom to take bits and leave others I receive from my other influences, which are theorists such as Ruth Ronen, Marie-Laure Ryan and Daniel Nolan, who have adopted Possible World Theory for their use in literary study and games design theory respectively, and whose adaptions and applications of its ideas have influenced my own and given me the conviction to use and run with it rather than faithfully follow its path.
I was surprised as to how little of Martin Heidegger figures in your book. Was there a deliberate reason for leaving him out of your treatment?
SV: While Martin Heidegger features more prominently in my first book, Listening to Noise and Silence, he only gets a brief mention in this one, you are right. This has to do with the purposivity of his phenomenology, and with the a priori of his philosophical position. The consideration of time and space is central to my development of sonic possible worlds and to the notion of listening as an inhabiting of these worlds as phenomenological life-worlds, which is a key proposition put forward in my book. Of course Heidegger seems one of the most obvious philosophers to refer to on matters of space and time, particularly when discussed via phenomenology. However, I understand his time and space to be determined by our use of them. His time and space are generated by the measure of our aims and purpose within them, and thus it is a function-generated space and time whose experience is being debated in his philosophy rather than the possibility or even impossibility of a less directed or even purposeless engagement. This is what makes Heidegger less interesting for my rather more indeterminate adventures into possible worlds.
I think it is also incidentally exactly through his purposity and the use and aim orientated tendency of his philosophy, coupled with his “ground-based” sense of the home and of origin, which determine the aim and use value of his purpose, that his ideological position reveals itself and his political persuasions stop being a biographical detail and become a philosophical problem.
You describe sound as the invisible materiality of the world and sonic sensibility as providing ‘alternative possibilities below reality’s visible surface’ (p. 7). How does sound relate to our shared reality and particularity in the world? And even though you do not intend to separate the landscape from the soundscape, could you elaborate on how sound escapes the restrictions demanded by the established visual logic, into which we are thrown?
SV: Again both these questions need the slower articulation afforded in the book rather than the space provided by the context of an interview to truly find answers. But I will try to formulate at least an explanation and background on how I treat both these issues and why they seem important to me.
To your first point “how does sound relate to our shared reality”, I think it is more a question of how does sound challenge and rethink how we experience and share reality. We perform our daily lives on an assumed sense of truth and reality, a consensus that is of course not given but constructed and to whose construct we are ideologically and aesthetically bound, and whose aesthetic, i.e. material interaction, express the belief system that motivates the consensus. The notion of “alternative possibilities”, which you allude to in the beginning of your question, is not a uniquely sonic concept of course. Alternative possibilities are as much visual as they are sonic. However, sound and listening, can reveal the invested ideologies behind the normative view, and grant us access to alternative possibilities: Through its invisible and fleeting nature sound opens an actual and a conceptual space to imagine other ways things are or could be if we engaged beyond the construct and its expectations. The unseen mobility of sound “below” the visual surface brings the visible into vibration and illuminates its processes and principles of actualisation. It is invisibility and the sensibility towards the invisible, that which we cannot see, but which determines the shape of so much that is visible and apparently actual, that can open actuality to its possibilities.
Here I mention for example the work of Francisco López, his compositions Through the Looking Glass (Buildings New York), from 2001, in which he makes us experience, through quiet textures and rhythms, the invisible architectural and social situations of ten different interior spaces in New York. His small sounds make us aware of the invisible materiality and activity that pluralises the apparently singular or consensual surface of reality. It brings us out of our expectations and demands that we suspend our habits to experience what else there might be.
As a consequence of this pluralisation of reality through listening as activity and as concept we need to also rethink how we share and communicate. Once it is accepted that reality does not represent a singular actuality, but a multitude of possibilities, and maybe even impossibilities, communication, as a form of access and translation is challenged into pluralisation too. In other words, once we have diluted the consensus or maybe even abandoned it, we need another way to get together and communicate.
Again the suggestion is not that sound destroys the consensus, but that listening can make us aware of its processes and limitations, of the misunderstandings and non-communication that dominate what we refer to as our actual reality. However, instead of abandoning exchange we are challenged to make it work contingently, in moments of coincidence, with great effort and with the will to find temporary understandings in a sea of misunderstandings rather than rely on language and norms to bridge the differences. In sound we are in invisible mobility, mobile ourselves, and communication becomes a negotiation between your invisibility and mine.
To your second point, which is closely related to the first, about “how sound escapes restrictions” that too I would like to turn around a bit. I think the point is that sound challenges the restrictions or norms and habits that a visual logic establishes. And by visual logic I do not refer to what is visible, but how we look, i.e. e the cultural prejudices, norms and expectations that determine the process of looking and therefore limit what can be seen, when so much else might be visible. I do not pursue an essentialist separation or differentiation between sound and image, listening and looking, but use the formlessness and invisibility of the first to open the deformed ideologies and norms of the second, to prize open its stranglehold on actuality and pluralise what we see.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology appears throughout your latest writing in relation to the transient ephemerality of sonic materiality and subjectivity. How does his concept of ‘openness to the world’ inform your own writing about sound?
SV: I find Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “openness to the world” extremely useful to reference and develop listening, as activity and as concept, in terms of what expectations are brought to it and what knowledge is gained from it. Merleau-Ponty talks about this openness to the world in relation to The Primacy of Perception, his treaty on the meeting between reflection and perception that lets us uncover the rationale and process of perception itself. Without trying to repeat the whole argument here, what is so useful and fascinating about adapting his visuo-philosophical openness, to the openness of the invisible materiality of sound is, that, having lost the visual object, Merleau-Ponty’s call not to survey the world, thinking it prior to our experience of it, but to plunge into it and make sense of it from that embedded position, is amplified and finds a proper application in the invisible depth of sound. His philosophy gives me permission and cause to dive into the invisible, and neglect vision, understood not as the visible, but as a process of perception always already determined by reflection rather than producing it. Ultimately from the groundless depth of the heard the visible itself will gain possibility.
A possible shared visual and audible absence reveals a presence of the unknowable and yet seems to be unable to be experienced. How does your concept of ‘phenomenological impossibilism’, which arises out of the search for a primacy of perception, inform the relationship between the unheard, the invisible and the impossible? And what is it that we can learn from the unheard?
SV: Phenomenological impossibilism is a term generated through the amalgamation of possible worlds as they are articulated in Lewis’ possible world theory, and life-worlds as they are developed in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. I first propose a phenomenological possibilism: a philosophical space where phenomenology meets logic, not in hostility, but through their respective focus on worlds and how they are inhabited. Life-worlds understood as Merleau-Ponty’s private worlds of experience that are not solipsistic, but take part in the negotiation of reality, meet the possible worlds of a sonic fiction to access the experience of that reality. In other words, once you have taken the mathematical modality out of Lewis’ logic and work with his realism as a sonic fiction as a real fiction, then listening can create a doable relationship between possible worlds and life-worlds to practice a phenomenology that appreciates the plurality of experience and equates inhabiting with actual possibility. In this way a phenomenological possibilism is a sonic possible world theory that has left the abstraction of modality to afford the experience of the real world possibility.
From there I allow for a phenomenological impossibilism to include even that, which we cannot yet experience, what remains as yet inaudible. Impossibility in this context is aesthetic as well as ideological and political. It reflects on what we do not have – the tools, or the will and wherewithal to engage in, and constitute a social horizon, beyond which we pretend not to hear anything even if it sounds. In many ways a phenomenological impossibilism represents the invitation and necessity to engage that horizon, to remain in doubt about the limits of experience, and to explore the unknown and what is considered the unknowable, to reveal the politics and aesthetics of exclusion and challenge its legitimacy.
You frequently refer to the sound as ‘a thing thinging’, which appears time and again throughout your book. What does this expression entail and what does it point towards?
SV: The thing and the sonic thing, are terms and ideas developed particularly in my first book, Listening to Noise and Silence. They derive directly from a critical reading of Martin Heidegger’s Ding, Die Frage nach dem Ding, and his notion of the Dinglichkeit of things (their thinging) discussed during an audition of Bernard Parmegiani’s composition matière induites from 1975, to elaborate a sonic thinging (Dinglichkeit). Heidegger, by agreeing and disagreeing with him, helps me to articulate the sonic thing not as sound object, which it is traditionally referred to via Pierre Schafer, a reference, through which it carries the difficult idea of objecthood. Instead, as thing it becomes something much more mobile and invisible, while not disappearing into an unnameable and thus into powerless and often subjugated ephemerality. The thing is something, but it is not limited by its look or materiality, weight and measure. It can be conjugated and thus the object becomes a verb, attains the power of activity and activation. The suggestion elaborated is one of a sonic sensibility and conception of language, in which sound, conventionally in the place of the attribute, moves into the place of the subject, the noun, and makes that a verb, an activity.
Language is often thought of as referring to that, which is real, which is actual and present. Could you elaborate on the relationship between sound and language and whether or how it is possible to translate sound into language? In writing about sound, have you experienced limits of what you are able to express in language?
SV: I am not sure whether language refers only to the real, in fact literary fiction presents the possible and even the impossible through words, so does poetry. And I adopt this possibility of fiction to suggest the idea of sonic fictions that present not the unreal, fantastical parallel worlds, however, but that generate the actual possibilities of the real.
I think it is not language, but the believe and trust we have in language, written language and spoken language, to convey reality and a shared or shareable truth, that limits expression to what we understand and believe to be real. It is our expectation of language, of vocabularies and words, to communicate and to make sense, that makes us unable to imagine them as something more or to believe they might do something else.
The difficulty we experience when trying to talk about a sound work or the sonic environment without referring to the object the sound emanates from, or without relating it to a musical language, demonstrates a certain limit of language. This is however not because sound is uniquely difficult to talk about, but because language entails the compromise of communication and the need for understanding that is linked to a dominant noun and its tangible visuality. By accepting this dominant reference point and its logic of communication we thus accept the limits of what we hear and what we see.
As an artist and writer I can engage the invisibility of sound to challenge these limits. I can propose a sonic sensibility and a sound writing which, as I suggest in both of my books, accepts that we probably do not understand each other, and that missunderstandings, or non-understandings, are what generates the reality of an event or a thing in its plural possibilities; and I can suggest that we work from this plurality of sense to tenuous and contingent understandings negotiated in moments of coincidence. This puts the emphasis on the subjects in conversation rather than on a pre-existing vocabulary; and it renders the thing discussed not an a priori object, untouched by discourse, but produced in the moment of conversation itself, as a conceptual sonic thing of exchange.
In my writing and in my practice I am very interested to challenge the compromise of communication and use sounds and texts to illuminate the limits of language to remind us of our responsibility in the creation of a shared sense, which does not sit in language, but in our use of it and what it generates contingently.
You distance yourself from the idea that truth is centred and pledge for the improbability of one stable meaning, shifting your focus towards our imagination’s ability to conceive possibilities of that, which could be. Does sound produce truth or does it open up something entirely different?
SV: In my writing I discuss truth via Francis Dhomot’s composition Forêt Profonde, which in a sense produces a sonic fairy-tale, and Richard Rorty’s pragmatic, anti-foundationalist idea of truth. I am motivated in my discussion by the sense of truth as an ideological construct. Truth is something we hope to encounter, but of course it depends entirely on a point of view, on an underlying sense of reality, to which a truth statement might or might not correspond. If we do exclude the possibility of possible worlds, then there is only ever one truth connected to an absolute and universal sense of actuality. The problem with this conception, although permitting the institution of a judicial system and law, is that we do not all hold the same sway and influence within this central actuality. The life-worlds of some of us are nearer or further to the institution of a proposed correspondence, and our distance also means that our sense of actuality counts less in the construction of correspondences. Hence truth, or a singular sense of truth and its judicial and cultural status become problematic: truth becomes a means of excluding and denying other realities and their inner world correspondences.
If we agree that there are possible worlds that are actual for their respective inhabitants, then we have to accept that the correspondence of truth to its “object” is internal to each of their worlds rather than to an abstract absolute. The requirement for actual world correspondence trivialises possible truths and marginalises them as mere fictions. Through the notion of sonic fictions and sonic possible worlds, distinguished from literary fictions and modal worlds, and able to hold a real consequence in the world, I aim to prevent this marginalisation of possible truths. I propose that the sonic work and the sonic world are not true in reference to a correspondent, but through the production of their action: the action of sound making and the action of listening. Sound produces not a representational truth, but a generative truth whose validity is contingent, you could call it a passing truth that does not produce facts and knowledge, but engages in how something is real and truthful in its possibility.
In this way sound challenges the absolute and universality of correspondence truth and instead proposes truth as a generative and temporal mode of production.
What is the difference between sound art and music? Does it simply boil down to accessibility and the context, in which the respective sound is played, performed or perceived? Or is this an indeterminate boundary?
SV: I think the boundaries between sound art and music are provisional, under constant consideration and permanent scrutiny. They form wobbly lines that overlap and diverge. There are different factions and interests: aesthetic, historical and financial, as well as professional, academic and educational that wish to keep them apart, and others that might want to bring them together. Personally, and I argue this in chapter 4, I understand there to be a discontinuous and complex continuum between music and sound art, which at the moment stands in the shadow of a more dominant visual arts discourse that is claiming sound for itself. Nevertheless, I try to make a case for music’s heritage to be recognised as sound art’s too, so that the scope of music to be social, to be emotional and to indulge in the jouissance of the material can find a new relevance in sound art, and so that, in turn, sound art can grant a conceptual and contextual criticality to music understood as another sonic expression. The comparative framework that I would like to promote for music and sound art does not aim to exclude the visual art connection however. Rather, sound art has a plural history and follows heterogeneous lines of influence that I would like to remain complex and plural. rather than see them simplified in a canonic formation. I guess I am interested in sound arts as undisciplinary rather than multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, able to illuminate and challenge disciplinarity itself.