Salomé Voegelin ‘The Possibility of Sound’

A thing like the cup on my table is an actual object, it is real in the most primitive sense of the word: I can touch it, it has a function and a form, and guarantees and locates my experience: to be thirsty, to drink tea – to which I relate a value and a name in which is placed the authority of the cup as object. If the cup was broken or if it were in a museum, removed from its primary function, unable to hold tea or highlighting its decorative nature instead, that would be another thing altogether. It would be a possible cup, if only it was not broken or if only it was not an artwork, but remains actual as a broken piece of crockery or as an exhibit. The broken or exhibited cup is still actual but differently real and it is also still an object with its own name and location, not just a thing.

Language makes things into objects by corroborating and locating their experience in a sense of actuality testified by a name. In this way language is the underpinning of our idea of the real as a notion of actuality, which is crucially not the same as lived reality but is the construction of reality as a logical and shared state of affairs: actuality answers the demands of logic and of language to be real in the sense of being truthful, consistent and not contradictory; reality involves the contingent experience and that might well at times lie, be inconsistent and contradict itself.

And so as it sits on my table, intact and filled with tea, the cup is more than a thing, it is a thing with a provenance and a purpose, a past and a future more than indeed a present. It is a thing with the authority of the object, qualified independent of my present experience, by the validity of its name. It is an object whose property does not contradict its purpose or form. It can go back in the cupboard where it remains a cup.

In contrast to this linguistic and logical actuality, sound always remains a thing thinging.[1] It exists strictly in the present and is mostly non-functional unless it signals the function of something else. Sound is as much possible as it is actual: temporarily generating an actuality that might well be different; hinting at the existence of other possibilities hidden in the invisibility of its passing. The actuality of the cup is a linguistic reality autonomous of perception, the actuality of sound is a temporary materiality that demands listening and generates itself as the possibility of the heard.

Language has great difficulty in locating sounds and finds it hard to testify to their existence. The name ‘the sound of the car’ is not the sound’s name, it is the car’s attribute, and thus I cannot place the validity of the thing of the sound in it, I cannot make it an object. ‘The sound of the car’ has the function of warning us of the car, that is however not the function of the sound, it’s the function of ‘the sound of the car’. The sound itself has no function, and so my experience of it, once we disregard the signification of its source, is much harder to locate, and harder even to articulate in language. I can try onomatopoeic exclamations but they mimic the sound, only producing another, rather than articulating its actuality. So it remains without a name and without a location, eschewing geography and semantics, and thus it must continue as a thing thinging presently proffering possibilities rather than one actuality.

What I can hear is the “then what…” of the “if that…” of sound. ‘The sound of the car’ offers me a possible thing that might not be the car at all, but a narrative, an encounter. Listening I extend what I hear well beyond the recognition of the object into the imaginary scenario of the sonic thing, of what it could be: a blue car, a green car, my dream car, my nightmare accident, a car swerving, a car giving chase, not a car at all…. And so sound hints at the improbability of one truth and meaning of things, and instead opens the imagination to the possibility of all that could be. In this sense it is unstable and doubtful: I can never be sure of what I hear. Instead I invent a contingent reality of the heard that is not an actuality but a possible reality. Sound is not ideal, it does not strive towards one truth about the actual but enables the imagination of all that could be real.

It invites us to generate a plurality of things out of its own temporal passing, and in this way it offers us an alternative perspective on objectivity. This other perspective is not based on a fundamental essentialism that separates the sonic material from visuality. Rather it is an acknowledgment that different materials, sonic and visual, fare differently in terms of their influence on what “there is” in the sense of “what there is as an accepted and shared actuality”. Sounds’ participation in the notion of actuality is not equal to that of the visual. So to focus, just for now, on a sonic materiality and engage in a sonic version of events should not be seen as essentialist and separatist, but as a temporary inhabiting of a sonic world that, having strengthened its own articulation, will inevitably re-meet the visual, which in truth it can never really leave, but which on its return it can illuminate with new insights.

Sound can invite us into a different world in which we can appreciate objects as things, autonomous of their name, established contingently and temporarily, generating different material dynamics and relationships. Such a sonic world is a place made from sonic things producing a timespace that, in order to hear, we need to inhabit as sonic things thinging ourselves, sensible to the fluidity and passing nature of its reality that might well be possible rather than actual, but which nevertheless we hear.[2]

The notion of a sonic world of sonic things grants sound a framework of reference that can take care of rather than override its fluent invisibility and contingency. It allows us to reference the material as action, thinging, rather than as object, and in this way enables us to reach the complex plurality of “what there is”. A sonic possible world made of sonic possible things generates and demands a sensibility of its own. One that does not marginalise it as merely possible, but appreciates its participation in the construction of the real – actual and possible.

Such a sonic world created of sonic things illuminates things and relationships that are not apparent in a visual actuality but that are real nevertheless in that they have an impact and a consequence for somebody. They are actualised in their encounter by a listening subject as possibilities of the heard, and draw attention to the invisible dynamics, power structures and hierarchies hidden in the objectivity of actuality, which are not impartial but have an effect. And thus this sonic world should not be dismissed as fiction, trivial and insignificant, but should be understood as producing possible actualities in the formless shape of sound’s passing that need to be listened to in order to hear the complex plurality of actuality.

Our ears can uncover alternative states of affairs. Different values and truths can come to light that impact on the actuality of the actual world. The possible-world-things of sound propose a different truth and coherence than the name of their source might have us believe, and thus the language articulating this heard must be ready for a complex plurality of truths and consistencies also. Listening I live the logic of the material that creates the world I hear, however incongruous this materiality, however plural and possible this sound, language needs to reflect its logic, not limit it to that of itself.

A sonic-possible-world-thing allows the exploration of its alternativeness, while locating it in the same universe as the visual-actual-world-object, thus granting accessibility and the ability to cross-reference, and ultimately affording influence on how we might think and live in the reality of the lived world. We have to explore sound, the sound- things and their relationships which produce a sonic world of sonic things, to investigate different values and truths, to come to know what they could be like and make them impact on a shared sense of actuality, revealing ideologies and addressing aesthetic, social and political preferences and discrimination.


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[1] I am taking my notion of the Thing from Martin Heidegger’s focus on das Ding, his investigation of the Wesen der Dinge, the nature of the things, through which he aims to bring back das Sein im Seienden, the being in the object, as it presents itself to dem Anwesenden: the human perceiver, who is in attendance of the object. For Heidegger everything that is not nothing is a Thing. He separates between the actual Thing as Unterbau, the foundation, the primitive consideration of the substance, and the Oberbau, the essence of the thing as it is reached in a phenomenological engagement. The Oberbau is that which the Thing does in its Dinghaftigkeit, in its thing-ness. His Dinghaftigkeit I interpret as thinging, to be the permanent but undefined action of the participle.

[2] I use the term timespace in order to explain the relationship between time and space as non-dialectical but extensional concept. The notion of ‘time’ is neither time as opposed to space nor is it time plus space. At the same time the idea of ‘space’ is not opposed to that of time nor is it space plus time. Instead time and space extend and produce each other, generating the complex possibilities of what we hear. Listening engages in the playful tensions of spatiotemporal production and highlights the critical equivalence between the two. To remove the dash between time and space serves to articulate this generative relationship and aims to prevent their separation and subsequent return to a dialectical identification.


References and other reading.

Heidegger, Martin, ‘Das Ding’, in Vorträge und Aufsätze, 163-81, Prullingen, Germany: Verlag Günther, 1959

– Die Frage nach dem Ding: zu Kants Lehre von den tranzendentalen Grundsätzen, Tübingen: Max Niemayer Verlag, 1962

Lewis, David K. On the Plurality of Worlds, New York: Blackwell Publishing, 1986

Rescher, Nicholas, A Theory of Possibility, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Possible Worlds, Artifical Intelligence and Narrative Theory, Indiana: University of Bloomington and Indianapolis Press, 1991