Non-visual knowledge & sensory metaphors: J. Butler, A. Amin & N. Thrift, & S. Graham

I attended Judith Butler’s Houseman Lecture at UCL on Wednesday, which was recorded and should be available on YouTube soon (I’ll add a link as soon as they post the lecture). The lecture was titled ‘Kinship Trouble in The Bacchae’ and explored issues with the kinship categories in Greek tragedy. While Greek tragedy is not my specialty, contemporary discussions of social relationships and interactions in their spatial configuration and geography are relevant too much of my work.

In particular, I was struck by two points in the lecture: 1) an emphasis on non-visual forms of knowledge/recognition; and 2) the use of sensory metaphors, in particular sound metaphors, to describe the dialectic (my term) implicit in kinship relations, or social relations in general.

Non-visual forms of knowledge are at the centre of my acoustic work. The experience of acoustics, hearing a sound in a particular space, immediately tells us something about the space, in a non-visual way. Usually this is the volume of the room, a measurement gleaned from sound better than sight. At a couple of points in her lecture, Butler made reference to the inadequacy of visual recognition. Children stories are full of misunderstood kinship relations typified in the question, ‘are you my mother?’ These narratives are grounded in the requirement of audible asking, rather than visual confirmation. Related to this misrecognition, Butler pointed out that it is through sound that children are taught the first level of kinship relations in the learning of the words ‘mum’ or ‘dad’. Now, apart with learning the word the child is taught to associate it with the proper object. Here it is attaching the sound to the proper object that forms the initial recognition, which the visual signifier can be later misunderstood. This interests me as an aspect of the complexity of sensory experience and the social/cultural forms of misunderstanding or misrecognition of that experience. I found it fascinating to think about the initial teaching of the child through sound, only to later questions the visual recognition and to return to sound for proper confirmation.

Recently, I have been working on a chapter looking at sensory approaches to ancient cities and urbanism. In the writing process, I found that I was using sensory metaphors to describe unstable, continuously moving, or aspects ‘in process’. Standard discussions of archaeology rely on visual metaphors, which have stable, fixed and static connotations. In contrast, sound metaphors have more dynamic connotations. Echoes rebound off structures; resonances vibrate and energise after the initial production. Two writings drew my attention to non-visual metaphors as better modes of discourse: Amin and Thrift’s Cities: Reimagining the Urban and Graham’s chapter, ‘Counting bricks and stacking wood’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome.

In her lecture, Butler continually returned to the implicit dynamic in kinship where one alternates between feelings of love/murder and recognition/unknowing. In describing these alterations, she drew on sound metaphors, especially resonance, echo and reverberation. It seemed that these metaphors made sense of the complexity implicit in affects and social relations at the centre of kinship relations. Auditory metaphors further imply a certain methodological practice, namely reflection. That is to say, the metaphors are ground in sound reflecting off things or parallel frequencies sounding together (resonance). I have discussed my own interest in reflexivity as a methodological tool. The interactions between people and space are reflexive and shape one another simultaneously, an aspect experienced in hearing an echo or resonant note.

Amin and Thrift critically questions three standard metaphors for the city and everyday urbanism, namely the flâneur and transitivity, rhythms and rhythmanalysis, and urban footprints and naming (10-25). These metaphors, for Amin and Thrift, are used with minimal methodological clarity, although they do emphasise that the metaphors are sensory. The critique is a valid reminder of the need to use the right metaphor to clarify complex and dynamic processes, which the urban metaphors were opening up. What is worth remembering is the way metaphors can open up new ways of understanding, but that these understandings, and metaphors, need to be critiqued, as well.

In a different way, Graham (checkout his website) shows the way sensory metaphors can be used to open up new understandings of urban processes. At the outset, Graham notes the use of metaphors as conditioning the way we think about the city. In this case, the city is a living thing that is an ‘emergent feature of the way its citizens interact’ (278). Graham draws on the metaphors of background hum or noise to discuss the flows of energy (both human and material) through the city of ancient Rome. Anyone aware of my own work will immediately know my interest in such usage. Drawing on figures for man power days, materials needed and load carrying measures, Graham calculates the provisions of material, people and transport for building in Rome, which makes up the background hum of movement and work in the city. In certain instances, peaks in activity would punctuate this noise, such as imperial building projects. In my own work, I have focused on the actual noise of such construction however, when dealing with certain scales, like the whole city of Rome, the particularity of individual sounds looses its importance. Instead, the auditory metaphor allows for the focus to shift between specific activity and city scale.

Graham has also worked with sonification, which is in a way an auditory metaphor. Sonification converts data into a song and allows one to listen to the analysed data. Although self-proclaimed ‘bad’ music, Graham has set a variety of different data sets to song here (Cacophony: Bad Algorithmic Music to Muse To). This is often done with geospatial data as you can hear the changes in the song as you move geographically across a map, although you can do the same with temporal changes. At Programming Historian, Graham has a leason on the process of sonification (here). This form of data manipulation serves as an auditory metaphor, making connections and clarifying aspects implicit in data that are not visable. Again, this allows for ways of understanding to be separated from visual forms, taping into other sensory modalities to create knowledge.


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