Sunday, December 14, 2008

Soundscapes and Bodies

In a recent poster session at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco, Cultural Production graduate student Bryce Peake presented his research on “soundscapes” in and around restaurants on the Maltese island of Goza in the southern Mediterranean. (Bryce is pictured to the left of his poster, explaining his research).

Like the term “landscape,” the concept of “soundscape” implies both a state of being and active process: we creatively “landscape” and “soundscape” our environs, even though certain features of landscapes/soundscapes (in their nominative senses) are relatively impervious or resistant to human intervention. How do we conceptualize, then, the relationship between landscapes and soundscapes? One way of approaching this problem is to consider an intriguing observation by the South African cultural theorist David Bunn, “there are no landscapes without bodies.” By this Bunn refers not simply to the standard practice in European painting of placing bodily figures in the middle foreground of a landscape but to the often implicit presence of embodied forms in landscape imagery as well as to the sensuous promise of bodily engagement in landscape contours and features offered to the viewer. In what respects, then, are bodies figured, overtly or implicitly, in a soundscape or acoustic ecology, provisionally defined as the sum total of all audio waveforms discernible in a given environmental niche? In the case of Bryce’s research, there would seem to be a prominent body politics embedded the Goizetan soundcapes: the habitus and dispositions of the bodies of both tourist and native are enacted and disciplined through the repetitive structuring of recorded and live sound.

Recalling my own research on mass witchfinding in Eastern Zambia, I am struck that a highly organized soundscape is carefully orchestrated for the collective disciplining of human bodies. As each villager enters the “circle of truth” interrogation space in the village center, a collective hush falls as the spirit-possessed diviner utters, in a high, reedy voice, the numerical “read-out” of the subject’s degree of witchcraft substance. To announce the presence of an accused witch in the circle, the witchfinder and his disciples will burst into Zionist hymns, as the crowd roars in anticipation. When witchfinder climbs the roof of a house to disclose a hidden witchcraft horn, the whole assemblage may emit cascading waves of laughter or rage, all skillfully “conducted’ by the witchfinder. The retreat of a disgraced accused person (upon whose skin the witchfinder has tangibly written his or her witchcraft quotient) is in turn usually accompanied by the shocked silence of the crowd. The noise of mass witchfinding is at times audible from several miles away, and one has the sense of a kind of audible thunderstorm proceeding across the landscape, cleansing (or terrorizing) communities and bodies in successive waves of righteous anger.


Ellen Schattschneider said...

The bodily dimensions of soundscapes are also nicely illustrated in my own work on the Cooking Pot (Kamado) shamanic rite at Akakura Mountain Shrine in northeastern Japan, discussed in my book Immortal Wishes (2003). See a brief video clip at:

The shamaness leading the rite chants the sacred song, calling for the purification of bodily openings, that moves the congregation symbolically up the mountain towards the realm of the diviniites; the gods, if all goes well, respond by causing the boiling water in the pot to emit an unearthly hum, which sounds and feels rather like audio feedback. These waves of sound are themselves held to penetrate and purify the bodies of the worshippers, who must hurridly deposit salt and rice in the sounding barrel; these elements (condensed icons of the sacred aural wave forms) become medicine to further purify the congregants' bodies during the coming year. The goal of the rite is thus to transfer the audible energy of the song performed by the mortal chorus to the divine aural meta-energy of the humming barrel, and then to re-internalize this energy in material form back into the body of the disciple. We need, in other words, to be cognizant of the transactional and transpositional aspects of human-produced soundscapes.

bjonpeake said...

A very nice summation of my thoughts in a very small amount of space!

The acoustic ecology becomes further complicated, though, if you consider those sounds which are not discernible. That is to say the ones that are "imagined" from cues of the landscape (maybe a TV with a talking head with no volume) or things that make you think of songs that you've heard previously. Although I've not yet gone on to think about this, I was told by numerous tourists that certain places made them think of certain songs. In what way does this imagined sound affect the way the current acoustic ecology is perceived? Maybe this will be one of my interests while in Gozo this summer.

I did not know this aspect of your work Ellen- this will be bumping you up to the top of the "books to read" stack on my kitchen floor.