When Sound Studies Meets Disability Studies

“Structural listening,” “deep listening,” “ear training”– These are terms that music scholars have used to describe practices that attempt to govern their experiences with sound. We can’t see sound, per se, so we often talk about it in terms of its containers and receivers–the environment in which it lives. So what is sound studies? According to Jonathan Sterne, editor of the The Sound Studies Reader, “Sound studies is a name for the interdisciplinary ferment in the human sciences that takes sound as its analytical point of departure or arrival. By analyzing both sonic practices and the discourses and institutions that describe them, it redescribes what sound does in the human world, and what humans do in the sonic world.”

I want to examine briefly how scholars have worked out the study of sound and to interrogate this process through the lens of bodily differences.

The interaction between sound and environment has been long explored by composer R. Murray Schafer through the term “soundscape.” He states, “The soundscape is any acoustic field of study…We can isolate an acoustic environment as a field of study just as we study the characteristics of a given landscape. However, it is less easy to formulate the exact impression of a soundscape than of a landscape… A soundscape consists of events heard [sic] not objects seen” (Schafer 2012, 99). Yet, as Ari Kelman (2010) critiques in his examination of the term, Schafer may refer to sounds that are heard, but not necessarily listened to. Schafer had partly been responding to urban sounds, which he deemed as noise, and advocated for a social project that would clean the airwaves from these sounds. Kelman observes, “Again, confusing sound and listening, Schafer called this splitting schizophonia, a term he coined to refer to ‘the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction.’…For Schafer, schizophonia leads inexorably toward meaninglessness and dislocation, creating a ‘synthetic soundscape in which natural sounds are becoming increasingly unnatural while machine-made substitutes are providing the operative signals directing modern life.’” Kelman also stated that later anthropologist Steven Feld attempted to diffuse some of the anxiety the notion of schizophonia could arouse by treating the sound itself and the origins of sound as an object of study.

Kelman finds the lack of distinction between listening and hearing to be a weakness in Schafer’s idea. The notion of soundscape has been used by many people uncritically because it is an attractive term, that is very evocative. Kelman reiterates that soundscape is a difficult term to define and to use well, partly because the very nature of studying sound itself can be complex and elusive; it often does not get properly scrutinized, defined, or adequately explored, and is not always clearly tied to place.

Listening seems to be a more intentional, less prescriptive, engagement with sounds around us, associating meaning with the sounds as we experience them. Whereas Schafer seemed to deem some sounds as more worthy of experience, that is sounds closer to their natural state, and other sounds–those sounds divorced from their natural state (schizophones?)– need to be healed or cut off from our environment; they are fragmented and chaotic.

Throughout these strands of scholarship, what has remained present is the physicality of the earth and of bodies, which has scientific, social, cultural, and historical implications. Yet, even while sound and space are analyzed and interrogated, I have observed lack of attention to a certain kind of body, the disabled body, a body that has been constructed and sublimated in much the same way as gender and race, through language, through social structures, through assumptions, and through the inability of the scholarship to recognize and acknowledge a bodily difference.

Disability studies examines the language and categories we use to talk about what disability is and how culture shapes our understanding of it.  As a recently emerged field in the humanities, disability studies seeks to engage in a discussion about disability that goes beyond mere medical understandings. It is a critical modality that is fundamentally connected to the body, by defining disability in a cultural context and by enjoining us to consider implicit assumptions about language and disabilities. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2004) uses the term disability “to name the cultural system of representation that imagines and creates the large and variegated, socially constructed category of people whose bodily forms…or appearances are considered to be abnormal, defective,…or flawed,” and that serves to “pathologize, stigmatize, devalue, and exclude” these designations.

When Murray Schafer spoke of schizophonia, he was describing a state of troublesome chaos and anxiety, in which sounds were fractured from their original sources, sounds that were unnatural, sounds that were “machine-made substitutes.” By invoking the neurological condition of schizophrenia—a condition where the brain’s chemistry allows a person to experience alternate realities—Schafer uses a metaphor of a condition that has been medicalized as in need of a cure and that to experience this condition was somehow less than human. Schizophrenia is a complicated physical condition that has puzzled medical researchers for decades. While its medical reality leaves much to be understood, its cultural reality is one of stigmatization. Schizophrenia is a mental illness that has been coded as socially unacceptable. The person who experiences schizophrenia is, therefore, seen as a fractured body. To use this person’s neurological otherness as a metaphor for chaos and brokenness is to reinforce the social stigma surrounding what is classified as mental illness.

Schizophrenia is a neurological disability, but perhaps more germane to the issue of sound studies are sensory disabilities. I have perceived a tendency in sounds studies to privilege the auditory experience, implicitly and explicitly, flattening the hearing process even as dimensions of sound and its production are more fully explored–a kind “aural-normativity.” Because of my work in deaf studies, I have become more sensitive to the complexity of sensory experience. Much of Deaf studies—studies that are focused on the Deaf identity built around the shared history, culture, and language of the Deaf community—tends to emphasis the visual. By contrast, sound studies stresses the aural experience of sound. By focusing on Deaf music-making— music that is situated in a culturally Deaf environment—I find a point of overlap between these two seemingly opposed sensory experiences of music. And in this space of overlap we can explore the expanded boundaries of musical phenomenology in the bodily environment, which then can open a broader understanding of musical experience that blurs the binaries between deaf and hearing, between mind and body, culture and nature.

The nexus between space, environment, body, and sound provides a fruitful stage for the scholar of music to explore institutions, society, and culture. These vantage points can point to a physicality that sometimes eludes the study of music, by embodying the music itself, its place in its environment, and the role of those who experience it. These points also provide an interdisciplinary space between science and humanities that allow similar questions to be explored in a variety of ways, which is an intriguing possibility in the world of a swiftly changing academia.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2004. “The Cultural Logic of Euthanasia: `Sad Fancyings’ in Herman Melville’s `Bartleby.'” American Literature 76, 4: 777-806.
Kelman, Ari Y. 2010. “Rethinking the Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Sound Studies.” The Senses and Society 5: 212–34.
Schafer, R. Murray. 2012. “The Soundscape.” In Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne, 95-103. Florence, KY: Routledge.
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