Afternoon Dust

In defence of percepts: a response to Seth Kim-Cohen's 'Non-Cochlear Sound Art'

Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear: Towards a Non-Cochlear Sound Art (2009) is an odd book. On the one hand, the author lays on a relentless attack against what he calls “sound-in-itself”, or rather against those artists and theorists that would seek to reify such an imaginary sonic essence in order to posit it as the transcendent origin of the sound art they favour. At the same time, he articulates a version of Seventies Conceptualism that comes to replace the phenomenal sonic object as the underwriter and validator of what is now the sonic ‘text’. In the place of perception, he advocates an approach that understands sound art as a blank surface upon which the inscriptions of context — “sociality, gender, class, race, politics, and power” — can be read, going as far as to suggest that some sound works, such as Alvin Lucier’s seminal I am sitting in a room (1969), are better apprehended without listening to them.

Kim-Cohen is entirely justified in raising the alarm with respect to the prevalent tendency to locate the meaning and value of sound art in pure, decontextualised percept alone. The notion of an original, self-evident utterance — a gesture that can be understood without reference to other gestures, thus supplying the foundation for all meaning — has been repeatedly trashed by the denizens of twentieth-century Western philosophy, not least by Derrida. However, Kim-Cohen twists Derrida’s concept of deconstruction into something the listener does to the ‘text’ (in this case sounds) by reading on the surface of those sounds the inscription of external concepts, rather than something always already at work, virus-like, within sounds themselves. His claim appears to be that percepts aren’t the original grounds of sound art, but rather that concepts (“sociality, gender, class, race, politics, and power”) are. He does not appear aware of the possibility that he is simply replacing the “sound-in-itself” with the Idea as the absolute guarantor of sound art’s meaning and value, or that sound-in-itself might exist as concept in much the same way gender or race does.

I’m not satisfied with the suggestion that percepts are merely seductive illusions that only get in the way of ‘reading’ the world as a text. My own intuition is that percepts matter - indeed, I struggle to conceive how Kim-Cohen’s sonic texts might be ‘read’ if they are not also perceived. Where he and I agree is in our rejection of strategies that would seek to reduce works of art (whether primarily visual or sonic) to pure percept alone, but in my humble opinion he seems to go too far in the opposite direction in reducing works to pure concept, as if percepts merely provide the occasion for a conceptual reading that is in no way influenced or shaped by them. I would incline towards the view that percepts and concepts are in some important sense co-dependent, but I’m still in the early stages of thinking through how this might work.

In his essay ‘Musicophobia, or Sound Art and the Demands of Art Theory’, Brian Kane makes masterful use of dialectical thinking to play Kim-Cohen’s anti-phenomenal text against Salome Voeglin’s pro-phenomenal Listening to Sound and Silence, undoing the reductionism that characterises both positions. Kane challenges Kim-Cohen on the grounds that social relations are not ‘external’ referents to be read in sounds, because sounds are always already social. However, he does not follow the dialectical trajectory through to draw the second, complementary conclusion — that society is always already aesthetic. I wonder why not?