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Biopolitics of the senses: touch, sound and embodied being

Anne Cranny-Francis

iPods, mobile phones, intelligent fabrics, touch screens, haptic work-benches all deploy the senses of touch and/or sound to create new relationships, new possibilities for creativity, new kinds of being.  This issue of SCAN explores the ways in which touch, sound, or both acting together create meanings and potentials for human engagement and being that go beyond the physical acts of touching and hearing. 

Sound Studies is a rapidly growing field of research, with its roots in a range of related disciplines, including film, media, music, psychology, sociology and cultural studies.  It includes pioneering work by sound artists such as Murray Schafer (1977, 1994) who developed the notions of sound ecology and the soundscape, and has led to the sound studies represented in the recent collection by Ros Bandt, Michelle Duffy and Dolly McKinnon, Hearing Places (2007).  It also draws on the wealth of writing on film sound, particularly work by Michael Chion (1994, 1999), Rick Altman (1992, 2004), Claudia Gorbman (1987) and Anahid Kassabian (2001), as well as generic film studies such as Philip Hayward’s seminal collection on the sound of science fiction film, Off the Planet:  Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema (2004).  Sound Studies draws on the work of sound artists such as David Toop (2004), theorists such as Douglas Kahn (1999), semioticians such as Theo van Leeuwen (1989, 1999), and sociologists such as Michael Bull (2000) and Tia de Nora (2000), along with popular music theorists such as Simon Frith (2004) and John Shepherd (1991, 1997).  And there are many other disciplines with substantial contributions to make to our understanding of how sound affects us, is part of our lives, constitutes our identity – from the arts, education, audiology, technology, robotics – some of whom appear in the field’s first critical collection, Michael Bull and Les Back’s Auditory Culture Reader (2003).

The study of touch is not so clearly a specific field of research but is currently being addressed within a range of disciplines.  Sensory anthropology, as described by David Howes (2005) and Constance Classen (2005), has provided new ways of understanding both the sensory history of the West and the different sensory configuration of non-Western societies.  This reconceptualization of the senses has also been central to the work of philosophers such as Michel Serres (1985), Jacques Derrida (2005) and Jean-Luc Nancy (2000, 2008), who have all written particularly on the meaning of touch. 

Equally compelling is work by Franziska Schroeder and Pedro Rebelo (2007) on the relationship between touch, technology and music, and its application to the design of interfaces; Stephanie Springguy’s (2003) and Kerstin Karft’s (2004) work on the interrelationship between touch, textiles and knowledge; and Sarah Kettley’s (2007) work on touch, technology, craft and embodiment.

The papers in this issue of SCAN address diverse aspects of touch and sound, providing the reader with an understanding of the extraordinary complexity involved in the most (and least) everyday act of touching or hearing.  Natalija Arlauskaite’s Possession without a touch: letters of Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, identifies the generation of virtual touch in the letters of Russian poet, Maria Tsvetaeva as she manipulates the sensory potential of writing to generate an intimacy without (physical) touch.  This is the kind of virtuality upon which many contemporary experiences of touch is constituted and locates the virtual not within the realm of technology, but of affect – with technology, whether an old technology such as writing or a newer one such as Information Technology or electronics, being the means by which human beings actualize that virtual state or relationship.

In “When the grinding starts”: Negotiating touch in rehearsal Kate Rossmanith explores the ways in which touch between performers constitutes them as specific kinds of embodied subjects, in particular through their negotiation of intimate touching within the public space of the performance.  Kate records and reflects on her observations from the liminal space of the rehearsal, identifying key differences in the ways that different performance disciplines – acting, dance – constitute their subjects.

In Sound, touch, the felt body and emotion: Toward a haptic art of voice Yvon Bonenfant describes his use of the notion of the membrane both conceptually and literally in his own performance work to explore the nature of performance as a form of intimate contact between performer and audience.  His paper considers a range of touch-based performances in order to specify the kind of tactility that is associated with sound, referring (as did Rossmanith) to the development of sensory studies within performance theory.  He then considers his own performance work for its deployment of ‘sound-touch’ and explains the centrality to his work of the notions of membrane, skin and the haptic.

Kirsty Beilharz’s Interactive instrumental performance and gesture sonification considers another performance mode – sonification – whereby a representation of data is conveyed using sound.  Her paper specifically addresses the way in which gesture can be captured for display and analysis, in order to both augment a performer’s real-time delivery and to allow user interaction – and also to enable the performer to explore contexts in which sonic representation is an effective alternative to visual representation (for example, in some medical diagnostic situations, in air-traffic control).  In this way sonification offers new ways of enhancing and transforming contemporary embodied being.

Critical Dialogue 1: David Chapman and Louise K. Wilson takes us into the area of sound studies, as they describe their acoustic reconstruction of a 19th century folly (the Temple of Decision) and several other sound projects at the Falkland, Scotland estate of the Marquis of Bute.  They also describe the acoustic archeology that has already been done at the estate and their own interest in this – including a possible example of Victorian sound design in a series of differently tuned cascades in the estate grounds.  This work is also related to their other projects which include Louise’s work at Cold War sites in Britain and Australia that explore the relationship between memory and sound, and David’s soundscape work that engages particularly with nature and the environment.  Their work, both separately and together, demonstrates the new awareness of sound as a constitutive feature of cultural life as well as of individual being – and describes some of the creative ways in which this relationship is now being explored and enhanced.

Finally, my own article, Sonic Assault to Massive Attack:  touch, sound and embodiment explores the relationship between touch and sound in a range of contexts – the description of a man killed by sound in the Lord Peter Wimsey novel, The Nine Tailors, the sensual descriptions of the musician’s touch by pianist, Simon Tedeschi and saxophonist, Brian Morton, the use of sound by the F.B.I. at the Waco siege in 1993, and more recently in the torture of political prisoners by the U.S. during George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ – all of which underscore the power of sound in the negotiation of embodied being.  This relationship has often been overlooked and, as Theo van Leeuwen noted some years ago, that omission and hence lack of critical analysis facilitated its use  – as does the notion of sonic torment as ‘Torture Lite’ by contemporary military forces. 

All of these papers explore the power of sensory engagement in the production of embodied being – not as a teasing or supplemental aspect of subjectivity to be deployed in advertising or entertainment or even education, to convince or entertain or guide the individual subject via the seduction of the senses – but as a fundamental and integral part of the negotiation of subjectivity.  The contemporary focus on sound and touch in a range of technologies and applications has not increased the importance of sensory engagement so much as made it more apparent, and it is the task of scholars, as much as of designers, to understand the nature and significance (individual, cultural, social, political) of this engagement.  Focusing on touch and/or sound, these papers tease out some of the complexities and the possibilities of sensory engagement, locating it in relation to the negotiation of embodied subjectivity and to the politics (individual, cultural, social) in which we are all, as embodied subjects, involved.


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