Acoustic Territories

by Thomas Brett

A recent addition to the growing literature on the field of sound studies is Brandon LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (Continuum 2010).  LaBelle is a sound artist, writer, and editor of Errant Bodies Press (which brought us the book African Feedback).  Acoustic Territories offers an acoustic politics of space, or what the author calls an “auditory topography of the urban milieu”, from the underground world of subway musicians, to the home, the sidewalk, the street, the shopping mall, and finally, up to the invisible airwaves in the sky.   Exploring these spaces and places allows LaBelle to show how “sonic materiality operates as ‘micro-epistemologies,’ with the echo, the vibration, the rhythmic, for instance, opening up to specific ways of knowing the world.”

For LaBelle, sound is a key to understanding contemporary social life as it is experienced everyday.  And a key to understanding where LaBelle is coming from lies in two ideas.  The first idea is that sound is fluid and moves about freely, creating spaces and environments in which social life unfolds: “Sound is promiscuous.  It exists as a network that teaches us how to belong, to find place, as well as how not to belong, to drift.”  The second idea is that understanding sound constitutes a special kind of knowing (or “micro-epistemology”) that helps us locate us: “Auditory knowledge is a radical epistemological thrust that unfolds as a spatio-temporal event: sound opens up a field of interaction, to become a channel, a fluid, a flux of voice and urgency, of play and drama, of mutuality and sharing, to ultimately carve out a micr0-geography of the moment, while always already disappearing, as a distributive and sensitive propagation.”

Drawing on empirical experience, philosophical speculation, historical studies, as well as an array of cultural theory, LaBelle interrogates a wide swath of contemporary experience, acting as a careful guide to exploring the many worlds inhabited by sound.  In fact reading the text is a little like walking through a museum with one of those audio guide speaking to you on headphones–a voice pointing out little details and how those details connect to broader understandings.  Among the many topics LaBelle explores are the experience of iPod listening, the phenomenology of booming car stereo culture, the acoustic politics of sonic deterrents, noise pollution, and the poetics of domestic soundscapes.  He also weaves into the narrative descriptions of sound art works that touch on the book’s themes.  For instance, in a discussion of the “acoustic horizons” of the home, LaBelle cites Vito Acconci’s sound art project Talking House (1996), which places microphones inside of a house to broadcast its sonic contents to passersby.

What makes Acoustic Territories such a compelling read is that LaBelle has written a rigorous book that never loses touch with an artistic vision that only a sonic practitioner could bring to such a writing project.  Thus, the book not only documents acoustic territories and engages with theory to help explain them.  It is also engaging object in its own right, a textual presence resonating in sympathy with its liquid subject matter.

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