Phenomenology of Sound

Phenomenology of Sound March 29, 2014

We don’t hear sounds, Heidegger said. That’s an abstraction. What we hear are things making sounds – “the creaking wagon, or the motor cycle . . . the column on the mark, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling” (quoted in Jonathan Ree, I See A Voice, 42).

Jonathan Ree demurs, and points to the grammar of sight and sound to make his point. On the one hand, “light and its sources are not, as a rule, the objects that you see: you look at the things light makes visible, rather than at the light itself.” Sound is grammatically different: “the objects which concern your hearing are always either sounds or sources of sound” (43). We hear sounds rather than material objects.

And that means that sound doesn’t deal in proper, solid things. Hearing is “content to live in a world of sounds – floating, ungraspable, and weightless nothings that they are” (45).

And this in turn means that hearing is far less concerned to distinguish fantasy and reality than sight. “Hearing does not presume as much as vision. It is not so arrogant, and it is willing to refer its experience to evanescent qualities without insisting, as sight does, that they have to be tethered unambiguously to definite things in the material world. The ear is not hung up on the reality of things” (46). Vision enables a “tidier separation between illusion and reality.” If you see something that comes from inside you, you are hallucinating; if you hear something from within, that doesn’t mean the sound is unreal, even if no one else can hear it (47). 

Vision is oriented to objectivity; if the thing ain’t there, you’re wrong to see it. Hearing is easier with the subjective.


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