Acoustemology: a retrospective glance at a 1990s sound-concept

Charissa Granger (Erasmus University, Rotterdam)
MPSG Retrospective Review No. 2019:1
Published 10. July 2019

Steven Feld coined the term “acoustemology” in 1992 to illustrate that the world is understood relationally. His argument was that a theory of sounding and listening enables a critical debate within the social study of sound about how we come to know and experience the world. Emphasizing a relational ontology, Feld sought to disrupt static categories such as “human”, “animal”, “plant”, “material” and “technology”, acknowledging connectedness as a prerequisite for being. Feld underlines contingency and illustrates the multiple entanglements between humans and broader ecological environments by exploring acoustemology, that is, ways of knowing in and through sound.[1]

Intellectually unexcited by the anthropology of sound/music and its practitioners, ethnomusicologists, Feld found more critical rigor through the concept of acoustemology. His critique of ethnomusicology begins from the fact that:

[…] a great deal of it mimicked the study of western art musics, replacing western history with a remote ahistorical exotic. Ethnomusicology often seemed very much about doing to presumed “others” what had already been done to a presumed “us”. So, for example, it replaced periods of western music history with areal regions of geographically defined others. It presumed western music theory could translate and definitively explain other musical materials and concepts. It focused on reified categories and things, like pieces, instruments, texts, and composers, and otherwise took music as a universal given. It valued the same things elsewhere that it valued in Europe: virtuosity, melodic and rhythmic complexity, sophistication. And predictably, explorers in this field were after discovering and preserving stunning new finds, like their musicological counterparts were after discovering and preserving stunning old manuscripts.[2]

Interested in the ecology of sound and arguing that “the language and music of nature are intimately connected with the nature of language and music,”[3] the concept of ethnography of sound was insufficient and disappointing. Thus, Feld “began to transform myself from an ethnomusicologist to an echo-muse-ecologist […] ‘Ethno’ always implies otherness, but ‘echo’ is about presence, about reverberant pasts in the present, presents in the past. And I remembered: sound is memory, here as everywhere. From there I began to explore how the Kaluli soundscape, from its bird calls to song paths of place-names, is always about memory, about absence and presence, about how in the forest sound reveals what vision conceals.”[4]

In the 1990s Feld begins to explore “acoustic knowing as a centrepiece of Kaluli experience, [examining] how sounding and the sensual, bodily, experiencing of sound is a special kind of knowing, or put differently, how sonic sensibility is basic to experiential truth in the Bosavi forests.”[5] To discuss this sonic way of knowing, Feld proposes the category of acoustemology.

Emerging from his work with the Kaluli people in the Bosavi rainforest in Papua New Guinea, Feld conjoins acoustics and epistemology to question sound as a way of knowing. Feld asks: “What is knowable and how [does] it become known, through sounding and listening?”[6] Acoustics, in this conjunction, has little to do with or “does not specifically engage acoustics on the formal scientific plane that investigates the physical components of sound’s materiality […] Acoustemology engages acoustics at the plane of the audible.”[7] Sounding here is an experiential connection of sonic sensations. This enables an examination of sounding and listening as a knowing in action (knowing-in and knowing-through the audible).[8] Acoustemology allows for recognition of the manner in which sonic knowledge develops through interplay between hearing and the other senses. According to Feld, knowing the world through sound is inseparable from living in the world sonically and musically. Additionally, epistemology is not understood “in the formal sense of an inquiry into metaphysical or transcendental assumptions surrounding claims to ‘truth’. Epistemology here is the relationality of knowledge production”;[9] it is contextual and experiential or situated knowledge.

This work is crucial for thinking of sonic ways of knowing and being in the world. Feld suggests acoustemology as a theoretical approach which engages with the “relational practices of listening and sounding and their reflexive productions of feedback.”[10] Acoustemology moves beyond and “imagines an alternative to the classic triad of music in culture, music and culture, music as culture.”[11] Rather, it seeks to “to think bigger, to reimagine the object of study more expansively, more philosophically, and more experimentally.”[12]

Considering ethnomusicology’s colonial legacy, acoustemology also contributes to critiques of the discipline. Feld argues that “an anthropology of sound was meant to help decolonize ethnomusicology”s disciplinary paradigms.” However, the term has limitations: “anthropology” embodies an explicitly human-centric model. Additionally, the focus on “sound” privileges categorization and fixity rather than perception and process.[13]Acoustemology thus opens a wider space to think decolonially. It does so by engaging critical discussion about sensuous forms of knowledge and non-textual forms of knowing. Decoloniality unravels and de-links[14] from modern colonial relations of power, seeking to generate alternatives to the colonial matrix and coloniality, which maintains a logic that erases the experience, knowledge, ways of knowing and existence of (previously) colonized peoples. Here the relationality that acoustemology brings with it is crucial to debates over positionality, responsibility and accountability in (non)human relations. Acoustemology allows us to question long-standing assumptions about music, performance, and audience, while we build on different conceptual structures. This is a practice in unlearning and undisciplining, and moves towards de-linking from dominant western ideas about knowledge and ways of being.

Feld’s acoustemology brings embodied experience, relationality, and questions of what defines knowledge into discussions of sound and music. Feld makes clear: “Knowing through relations insists that one does not simply ‘acquire’ knowledge but, rather, that one knows through an ongoing cumulative and interactive process of participation and reflection. This is so whether knowledge is shaped by direct perception, memory, deduction, transmission, or problem solving. Perhaps this is why relational epistemology is also invoked regularly as a cornerstone of decolonized indigenous methodologies.”[15] Acoustemology is rich in avenues that lead toward new questions – questions that stimulate our attempts to capture the way music, sound, and ways of sounding out bring us to different ways of being and knowing the world.

[1] Steven Feld, “Acoustemology”, in David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny, eds, Keywords in Sound (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 12-21 (pp. 12-13).
[2] Feld, “From Ethnomusicology to Echo-muse-ecology: Reading R. Murray Schafer in the Papua New Guinea Rainforest”, The Soundscape Newsletter 8 (1994), 9-13 (p. 9).
[3] Ibid., 11.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Feld, “On Post-Ethnomusicology Alternatives: Acoustemology”, in Francesco Giannattasio and Giovanni Giuriati, eds, Perspectives on a 21st Century Comparative Musicology: Ethnomusicology or Transcultural Musicology? (Udine: Nota, 2017), pp. 82-99 (p. 84).
[7] Ibid., pp. 84-85
[8] Feld, “Acoustemology”, 12.
[9] Ibid., 85.
[10] Ibid., 15.
[11] Feld, “On Post-Ethnomusicology Alternatives”, 84.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
[15] Feld, “Acoustemology”, 13-14.

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