The Sonic Unraveling of Identity

One night in college, I was sitting on the front porch of a West Philly house with a friend. It was late and we were, uh, experiencing life more intensely than usual. I kept hearing a baby cry. I ignored it at first, assuming a baby was indeed crying and soon it'd be comforted and the crying would stop. But it didn't stop. And then I wondered if only I was hearing it. With some hesitation, I mentioned it to my friend. She'd been having the same experience. So then it was all we could hear. It went on for hours.

We still talk about that night, she and I. It haunts us. But it's also somehow hilarious — hilarious precisely because it was, and remains, delirious. What was happening? How could neither of us be sure if was even happening? Or what it was? No doubt, it was a cat. But that "no doubt" is never quite in fact without doubt. Such is the nature of sound: it unsettles the very possibility of certainty — and, with it, the certainty of sanity, self, and identity.

Sound is so odd because it is always, inevitably, untethered from its source. That's what makes it a sound! Sound is what leaves a body, traveling out in all directions with different intensities and volume, traveling as waves without a body. Sound is waves, invisible and palpable, entering us and then participating in different semiotic economies — I know that! That's a drum! A cat! A car alarm! But place in those signifying economies is never sure. Is that a cat? Or is it a baby? The social, semiotic, ethical difference is enormous. And yet we can't know for sure. We don't know what to do or how to feel. Do we call someone? The police? Social services? Animal services?

Sound resists certainty because it can't be seen. And we believe what we see, not so much what we hear. I think about the movement from phone to FaceTime: we want to see the other person so badly, to know that person is really that person. With sound — with the phone — there is always some uncertainty. Who is this? This doesn't sound like you! Think about how unsettling that effect, that affect, is: the voice on the other end says it's your friend but are you really sure? So we added caller ID: words will fix in place what sound can't.

Avital Ronell wrote her great book on the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, she tells us, imagined the phone as a means to contact spirits, as séance, a conjuring. After all, the phone rips the voice from the body, turns identity into electronic and sonic transmissions: turns the body into waves, into spirit. The great film, The Ring, makes this terrifying: you watch a video, yes, but it's not until the phone rings that your death is heralded. It's the ring of the phone that marks your death, initiates your death, is your death. The phone is not just the presence of another in your ear; it is the absence of that person. All that remains is the sound.

We know this all too well with music. Music is associated with the Dionysian because it takes us out of ourselves. Think of the Grateful Dead throngs: no more individual identities. Just a mass of gyrating skeletons. Sound heralds a grateful, beautiful death. But even with cock rock and rap, we witness and experience the evacuation of identity. The kid who walks down the street with his head phones on, rapping out loud to Lamar, is no longer himself: he is becoming Lamar. The dude doing his best Ronnie Van Zant, belting out "Freebird," no longer sees himself qua himself: he is, for those moments, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sound occupies us, displaces us, replaces us.

I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, I rented a room in a flat with just a mattress on the floor. One night, going to sleep, I heard the distinct sound of a woman moaning and man, occasionally, grunting. I never saw this couple; I never knew their ages, what they looked like, or if they were even in fact a man and woman and not, say, two men or two women or two something else. And yet — or rather precisely because of this — I found it enormously erotic. The absence marked a possibility. But it's not that their visual absence let me imagine some beautiful, perfect sex act. The erotic is precisely that I can't, and don't, see anything. Sound proffers the erotic through its possibilities, through the way it enters and flows through us, occupies us, tickles and undoes us. It is not erotic despite being invisible; it is erotic precisely through its palpable invisibility, its spectral infiltration.

The visual, along with those stranger glyphs we call words, have a certain stupidity and, worse, conservatism. The State loves seeing and naming things. There are video recorders on cop cars now. When we go to record events, we pull out the camera on our phones, not the sound recorder. The visual, for sure, has many pleasures, erotic and otherwise. But it also has a tighter tether on identity which the State loves. It's the very basis of the panopticon. Can you imagine Jeremy Bentham's prison, or Foucault's reading of it, turning on a microphone in every cell?

And isn't this McLuhan's argument? The alphabetic privileging of the visual over sound created hierarchies, industries, the factory, the atomization of the social: everything in its proper place. Sound, he maintains, is allatonce. It's delirious. There is no directionality per se; it overtakes us, inundates us. The electronic age is a sonic age, an allatonce age. But what he underestimated was the will of the state to resist this, to mandate that each identity would have an image — a Facebook profile pic.

The horror of sound is the freedom of sound is the eroticism of sound. It is the human, along with all identity and the world itself, untethered, unmoored, body turned spirit yet still so palpable, so real, so poised to occupy and disorient and arouse, all at once. 


drwatson said...

This is really interesting. I've got this idea I'm working on that a person is essentially like a gyroscope - always adjusting and never able to keep a stasis for any real amount of time. So I'm unfortunately reading everything through that idea. But it occurs to me that one of the most unsettling events is sound - it's sort of the ultimate floating signifier in that you can convince yourself that it could be just about anything. . So the experience of hearing something unknown is often scary because we need to be able to reckon the sound into something known or we feel no balance.

The other thing I was reminded of was a bad philosophy of art class that I had where we just read the history of analytical people trying to define art. Because of my background in music I would often be the person who would go "but what about this or that musical example." The theories just couldn't deal with music or in their rubrics. In fairness they couldn't deal with artbin general but they were especially bad at understanding music. .

Daniel Coffeen said...

Oh, man! I love live the gyroscope figure. Beautiful and handy!

And sound: how come it never really occurred to me so clearly before? When I first read Avital's book, I didn't get it. But it came back, the return of the repressed — or some such thing.

Philosophy of art sounds like a suspect subject, anyway. They are two disciplines that speak to each other, inform each other. One can never explain the other, illustrate the other. That's why they couldn't "explain" music; it's not to be explained per se.