An aesthetic controversy regarding the value of conceptual and ambient sound art opens this theoretical investigation into sensation, perception, and understanding. The contrast between valuing sound through language or listening calls on aesthetic philosophy and social phenomenology to transcend existing theories of perception that tend to be rooted in the sense of sight. Extending from the sensus communis, the phenomenology of expanded listening demonstrates that sonic percepts are specified in terms of cognitive attention and temporal adumbration. Judgment and conviction are distinct evaluative processes that draw on cultivated taste and embodied sensation, respectively. An emancipated listener finds enhanced political agency in a sonic sensorium, obviating the mediation of text. Though the history of visual art has tended to value the skillful hand or conceptual mind of the artist, sound art may allow listeners to contribute a broad spectrum of meaning and value through bodies with diverse sensory abilities engaged in expanded discourse.

Conceptual art offers viewers a journey along an associative chain. There is always a bottom. Or rather, the work attains its own life by cannibalizing the half-lives of its sources. Looping back through multiple tropes to arrive at its own existence, the conceptual art work offers itself the protagonist of an old-fashioned, well-crafted story composed through the collision of historical referents rather than characters.1

—Chris Kraus

The formalist method: suitable for those ignorant of, or indifferent to, history. This, surely, is part of its appeal now. One doesn’t need to be ‘learned’ to understand a literary text or a painting, only intelligent. One doesn’t need more than the work itself.2

—Susan Sontag

This theoretical inquiry works backward from a potent controversy discovered in fieldwork with sound art practitioners, including sound scholars, critics, theorists, and artists themselves. The debate had to do with the aesthetic value of conceptual versus formal, or “ambient,” works in sound, and practitioners on each side ardently justified their evaluative criteria in formal interviews and casual conversations. In response to a 2013 wave of exhibitions that installed ambient environments of sound and light in galleries and museums, advocates of conceptual sound called out these other artists for the missed opportunity to communicate political positions at a vital historical moment. Many cited Seth Kim-Cohen’s polemic Against Ambience that frames these installations as soothing escapes, such as James Turrell’s “inchoate spaces of wombessence,”3 arguing instead for conceptual sound art: works that use language to describe their value rather than doing so with sound or light alone. Craig Dworkin’s blurb described the book’s effect:

Against Ambience is like one of those bombs the anarchists dreamed of back at the birth of modernism: exploding whole worlds with a single throw. In their case, some wood paneling was splintered, tuxedoes were spoiled, and a few (usually the wrong) people injured. But Kim-Cohen here, once again, pulls off the more utopian dream—and with aplomb.4

Indeed, the morally invective character of that essay prompted my investigation into the underlying relation between language, sensation, and aesthetic value in auditory culture, the gallery arts, and the public sphere beyond white walls.

Before addressing the controversy directly, this essay exposes the unique features of listening as a mode of sensory perception and valuation. Working from aesthetic philosophy through social phenomenology, the history of how we understand sensory inputs may inform this aesthetic and ethical dispute. Though some sound practitioners attended to sound and light together, this analysis begins by identifying the distinguishing features of each, noting that relatively passive ears may have different implications for sensory understanding than active eyes. Taking the sense of sight as a synecdoche for all the senses is not only common in aesthetic philosophy,5 social phenomenology,6,7 art theory,8 and sociology,9,10,11 but it has been the primary mode of sensory practice in the gallery arts, as well. Yet, some specificities of the sense of sight might lead to conclusions not warranted in the other bodily senses. Without addressing the senses of taste, smell, and touch, this essay’s focus on the sense of hearing draws into question some of the assumptions derived from theories of seeing regarding sensory phenomena, perception, and aesthetic judgment.

Particularly, the practices of seeing12 may not be generalized to those of hearing; eyes look in ways that ears do not listen. Rather than operating as reactive organs that use muscles to train themselves on objects of perception, the receptive cochleae of ears are constantly presented with sonic stimuli from which meaning can be distilled. The act of listening is one of attention, qualitatively different from the bodily movement that results in the act of looking. Sound scholar Jonathan Sterne acknowledges that sight has been alternately elevated and denigrated in many disciplines of the humanities, stylized through a pejorative “audiovisual litany,” as shown in the table.13

Hearing Vision 
Spherical Directional 
Immerses its subject Offers a perspective 
Comes to us Travels to its object 
Concerned with interiors Concerned with surfaces 
Involves physical contact with the outside world Requires distance from the outside world 
Places us inside an event Gives us a perspective on the event 
Tends toward subjectivity Tends toward objectivity 
Brings us into the living world Moves us toward atrophy and death 
About affect About intellect 
A primarily temporal sense A primarily spatial sense 
Immerses us in the world Removes us from the world 
Hearing Vision 
Spherical Directional 
Immerses its subject Offers a perspective 
Comes to us Travels to its object 
Concerned with interiors Concerned with surfaces 
Involves physical contact with the outside world Requires distance from the outside world 
Places us inside an event Gives us a perspective on the event 
Tends toward subjectivity Tends toward objectivity 
Brings us into the living world Moves us toward atrophy and death 
About affect About intellect 
A primarily temporal sense A primarily spatial sense 
Immerses us in the world Removes us from the world 

Indeed, past scholarship has imbued the differences between hearing and vision with metaphysical weight and universal aesthetic quality, and this essay is no attempt to de-historicize the social nature of sensation. On the contrary, drawing attention to the specificities of parts of bodies creates space for theories of perception that include the differences between bodies, in terms of ability, identity, and power in the sociology of the senses. Despite the way sound scholarship may have rendered the differences between hearing and vision as transhistorical, as Sterne suggests, phenomenology distinguishes looking from listening as distinct practices of bodies in at least two important ways. First, the act of listening, or “hearkening” for Martin Heidegger,14 is one of conscious attention rather than bodily motion, a crucial difference in the relationship between body, sense, and understanding. Second, listening, as opposed to hearing, is a way to remove oneself from Alfred Schütz’s state of being-in-the-stream;15 the act of temporal “adumbration”16 is necessary to bracket off one sound from the surrounding noise of life and to step out of the longue durée through a moment of reflection. Functioning differently from the visual sense, these aspects of audition reveal that focused attention and temporal adumbration uniquely specify the sonic percept; it is unclear under what circumstances that sonic percept might be shared between listeners at all. These complications locate subjective understanding in the social body, pointing toward listeners’ agentic judgment. Just as Jacques Rancière theorizes an emancipated spectator17 who can engage the aesthetic sensorium18 as a forest of possibilities for embodied perception and meaning making, so can we imagine yet-unknown social and political reconfigurations in these multisensory environments.

This paper emerges from an empirical study into sonic gallery arts as a discipline of auditory culture where sound is a medium of artistic practice and exhibition, juxtaposed with music in terms of valuation processes19,20 and organizational hierarchies.21,22,23 Although I initially understood sound art to be any work of auditory culture performed, displayed, or exhibited in a gallery or museum, my understanding has been both expanded and refined through ethnographic participation. Practitioners varied in their own boundary work on what constituted the disciplines, media, and idioms of this world, and a contested assemblage emerged from the inquiry to include installation, performance, sculpture, video, drawing, cymatics, kinesis, digital, multimedia, and conceptual works, to name a few. Apart from conceptual “non-cochlear” sound art that does not emit sound that is audible to human ears,24 most of these works do present sonic stimuli to listeners; yet language tends to be an essential aspect of these works at each moment from production to reception and circulation.

Within the broader world of the gallery arts, the discipline of sound art is only a fragment, yet these nuances of categorization are crucial to understanding internal judgments of aesthetic value. Specifically, the unique features of listening are laid bare in gallery and museum contexts, which have historically oriented toward the sense of sight. Four years of ethnographic fieldwork in Chicago, New York City, and Berlin, with ongoing volunteer work at two field sites, and 105 semi-structured interviews among artists, musicians, curators, gallerists, dealers, talent buyers, nonprofit administrators, and scholars compose the qualitative observations for this study of aesthetic perception, understanding, and value. The following theoretical consideration of the uniqueness of listening for the sociology of the senses draws on that empirical study while rooting itself in an abstract exploration of social theory.

Before disentangling the relationship between sensation and judgment, aesthetic philosophy directed its attention to the possibility of a transcendent realm inaccessible to our cognitive powers of empirical inquiry.25 On this distant ontological plane, or “supersensible substrate,” an object can be beautiful and even sublime, apart from the subjectivity of perception.26 Though these qualities of objects are thought to be distinct from the practices of judgment and attribution by perceiving subjects, Immanuel Kant sets up disinterestedness as necessary for the pure judgment of aesthetic objects.27 The possibility that objects might have essential qualities apart from subjective understandings has been set aside by much of 20th-century social theory, particularly since Pierre Bourdieu’s unification of the actor and object in the process of judgment according to the dispositions of identity within fields of power.28 John Levi Martin concurs that “the first task of an aesthetics is simply to determine how we may be able to attribute qualities to objects even when we cannot simply posit that they were ‘put there’ by their creator.”29

Aside from the possibility that objects might have essential “qualities” as a category of being, the “substance” of sound is a complicated notion, once thought to be consubstantial with its material form.30,31 Christoph Cox distinguishes substance from quality, describing the material effects of sound without mistaking a sonic phenomenon for matter in itself.32,33 If sounds are, as Nina Eidsheim challenges, immaterial patterned processes of pressure acting on the material forms of air particles, yes, but also liquids, organic and architectural solids, transducers, and bodies,34 then how can we understand their “qualities” to be accessed through sensory perception and the consciousness?35 Cox points toward a new mode of artistic practice via a Deleuzian36 extension and distillation of Kant,37 distinguishing the “actual” from the “virtual.” On this distinction, Cox clarifies, “This pair of terms marks the difference, within the flux of nature, between empirical individuals and the forces, powers, differences, and intensities that give rise to them.”38 While Cox claims that these conditions are not conceptual or cognitive but rather “material, immanent in nature itself,” Eidsheim extends a challenge to standard accounts of the relatively blank, generic character of air particles to further confound the notion of materiality.39

Also crucial to a theory of sound are the categories of “place” and “position.” These related aspects of sound situate perception in a reflective material space beyond the three dimensions of air enveloping the body. Organic and architectural matter form reflective surfaces from which the force of sound bounces in multiplicity back to the body. Like the reflective surfaces by which light becomes image, these surfaces also situate the sense of hearing in terms of spatial location and bodily position. And yet, the sense of sight relies on these reflective surfaces, whereas the sense of hearing only requires the micro-material environment of air particles against which to press. If all sight is reflective in its position, then the positionality of sound is doubly so. Cox and Eidsheim, along with many others in the interdiscipline of sound studies, emphasize site specificity as a necessary condition for the phenomenon of sound, both directly and through reverberation.40 Though human ears perceive the surrounding environment through reflection in much the same way eyes do, they do so with less acuity and speed, positioning the body in an ever-transforming web of compressed and rarefied waves of pressure.

Kant goes on to differentiate the act of sensory perception through stimulated organs of the body, such as encountering colors as “the isochronous vibrations (pulsus) of the aether” or tones as “the air set in vibration by sound,” from the act of conscious reflection, “the regular play of the impressions (and consequently the form in which different representations are united).”41 Conscious reflection requires abstraction from the qualities of sensation, and the very possibility of this pure judgment of formal beauty relies on the cultivation of taste. Kant describes the problem facing those who lack this cultivation of taste as mistaking an agreeable sensation for a beautiful form. Kim-Cohen extends this problem to the abjectly feminized “inchoate spaces of wombessence” in ambient art,42 in that these sensations stop short at the point of agreeableness and should not be judged as beautiful in form.43 For Kant, emotion, too, is exempt from the rubric of beauty, contributing rather to the experience of the sublime. Where, then, is the place of the “conceptual” in considerations of beauty? Kant describes the process by which taste is cultivated, which we may call, alternately, the knowledge of value, as likened to the sensus communis, a common sense.44 Distinct from the colloquial notion of common sense as a widely shared logic of action, Kant’s use has more to do with a shared (common) understanding of the meaning of sensory stimuli. Just as language without social understanding is a string of meaningless phonemes, sensory stimuli are similarly available for common sense-making.

Though Kant sets forward the autonomous qualities of sensory objects, he also establishes that these sensations are subject to social apprehension. Despite the necessity of a sensus communis, an array of social meanings can be attributed to any sonic object, not limited to a basic semiotic understanding but extending to political economy, as well. For instance, Erwin Panofsky analyzes the changing use of perspective in European painting to unseat theocratic authority over the beautiful image and to raise the “anthropocracy” of human consciousness to a seat of perceptual honor.45 John Dewey concurs that Kant’s understanding of the “beautiful” reflects “the artistic tendencies of the eighteenth century,”46 which were situated in the sensus communis of that particular historical moment; the contingency of qualities found to be valuable in the objects of perception becomes the site of critique for Dewey.47 That universality of the “qualities” of objects has suffered critique in art and social theory throughout the 20th century, yet the relation between consciousness and the senses remains an important artifact of Kant’s aesthetic framework. Though the meanings and value judgments associated with aesthetic objects are historically contextual, the principle of sensus communis remains useful for a theory of perception. Only by bounding and specifying the scope of the “common” can the rubric of aesthetic value have a socio-historical foundation, situated in terms of identity and power.

This relation between sensation and understanding complicates the notion of conceptual aesthetic value. According to whose understandings should a work of conceptual sound be judged? The social basis of sensory perception established in aesthetic philosophy is a foundation for phenomenology to address the social processes of perceptual understanding, including the invocation of a sensus communis. A particular offering of phenomenology has been to consider sensory understanding as unfolding through the procession of time. This relation with duration makes the sense of hearing a special case in phenomenology, relying on attention and temporal boundaries for perception. Where visual images may not need to be bracketed in time for understanding, sonic impulses do require the perceiving mind to shift its attention and to set them apart from the ongoing stream of stimuli, further emphasizing the uniquely embodied nature of listening.

With rapid movements averaging three per second, human eyes scan surroundings and use the extraocular muscles along with the orientation of head and body to train themselves on objects, centered within the visual field. This act of motion through space is unique among the senses, apart from the sense of touch that may prompt a body to reach out for sensation. Conversely, smell, taste, and hearing tend to be immobile within the body of the perceiving subject. This active sense of sight engages the mindful will of the subject and a mobile body through space, but ears function quite differently. The practice of listening attention is not one of motion but of conscious identification. In rare cases, one might move an ear closer to a sonic object of desired perception, but more likely the mind reverts to the rapid and reactive eyes, turning the head to see the origin of the sensed sound. Indeed, sound art listeners tend to look at sound sources in galleries, even when they are intended to be merely functional.

The gallery arts, entrenched in the sense of sight, have historically expected mobile spectators to look at works trapped in time and space. Despite the interventions of kinesis, video, and performance into the gallery, static objects continue to dominate the landscape. When an immaterial, invisible sonic work enters the gallery, it is apprehended through different processes of sensation. The properties of visual objects, such as color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value, might be recognized in the same place a moment later: spatial and temporal stasis. Yet, when one points out the sonic properties of sound, such as pitch, timbre, and volume, these same elements are likely to have changed a moment later, specifying the percept to the attention and adumbration of the listener. The durational nature of sound makes it unique among the other senses and predisposes the time-based arts to distinct standards of aesthetic judgment, as well.

Just as in the gallery arts, phenomenological accounts of the senses also have tended to take the sense of sight as paradigmatic, using images rather than sounds as the building blocks of theories of perception. Drawing on Henri Bergson48,49 and Edmund Husserl,50,51 Schütz develops a theory of consciousness on two levels.52 On the surface level, the Ego acts and thinks in the world of space-time through the apprehension of discrete, discontinuous images or percepts. On the level of the consciousness, images present themselves to the Ego and may require attention or action. Yet, on a deeper level where psychic tension is relaxed, the consciousness is dissolved into the longue durée of continuous transitions without contours, boundaries, or differentiation. This experience of a unidirectional, irreversible, and unbroken stream is sometimes interrupted by the intervention of the sense-making conscious mind, pulling the consciousness up to that other level of active consciousness, yet these interrupting percepts may be distinguished according to the attention and adumbration of the perceiving mind.

Attention: Noesis and Noema

Husserl takes up the phenomenological puzzle of conscious listening and hearing in the distinction of noesis and noema. Though the intentional act of noesis sets apart an object of perception in the mind of the perceiver, one might wonder about the practices, principles, and process of that setting apart. Seemingly tautological at face value, the noema of the object of perception is “the perceived object as perceived”53 or, by extension, the “judged content of the judgment as such.”54 However, the prototypical object for Husserl’s distinction between noesis and noema is the apple tree in the garden, accessed through the sense of sight. In this exemplar case, the features of sight are crucial to the theory of perception, as well. Though at a microscopic level the boundary of tree and soil may be complicated or indistinct, the vast mass of an apple tree in a field is visibly distinct from its surroundings in terms of material substance. Yet, the material and perceptual realities of sonic noema are less clear and more deeply contingent on the attention of the consciousness.

How to resolve the tension between noesis and noema, described elsewhere as the tension of subjective sensory perception and the object sensed?55 The meaning of the sensory world is an emergent understanding, endowed by the reflexive “glance” of attention rather than the object of perception, in itself. In the case of auditory phenomena, the sonic arts are founded on the principles of spatial and temporal specificity, with many artists requiring personal installation of their works to ensure that the noetic context falls under their own artistic guidance. Though we may try to describe the features of the perceived object as perceived and the judged object as judged, we cannot know exactly how that perception and judgment map onto other aesthetic subjectivities. The immediacy of visually apprehending a material object as a unified whole is not so for many of the audible objects that present themselves to unblinking ears.

If these visual objects of perception are reliant upon what Husserl calls “attentional transformations”56 of noetic specificity, they may be even more so for the sense of hearing. Referring to the “mental glance”57 of the pure Ego to form the consciousness, passive ears must allow time to pass in order to construct a meaningful percept out of sensory information, rather than the immediacy of fixing a beam in space. Although that visual noematic object may be relatively stable within the cone of light—dependent on the apparent modifications of brightness or darkness and yet of the same nature—can the same be said of sonic phenomena? Particularly in the case of auditory culture, the temporal limits of sound may more deeply constitute the percept than do the shades of light or darkness in the process of conscious understanding. These differences call into question Kant’s very notion of the sensus communis, presuming reflection on shared objects of perception within historically specific aesthetic communities. Though a handful of visitors to a gallery might be said to view the same painting, can they be said to hear the same work in sound?

Adumbration: Temporal Boundaries

To break from the stream of consciousness through a moment of attention is a temporally specific act. Husserl draws out this durational phenomenon in terms of picking out the “now-phase” and applying a specific unit of time to the sound that is heard.58 Schütz takes for granted Husserl’s assumption that time is a linear procession in which the mind moves continuously: “This world is now present to me and in every waking ‘now,’ obviously so, has its temporal horizon, infinite in both directions, its known and unknown, its intimately alive and its unalive past and future.”59 Extending in each direction toward an “unalive” future and past, the mind is only living in its present, the slipping away point of consciousness in a linear trajectory forward. That “actual now” experienced by the Ego is “a form that persists through continuous change of content” including the object or idea apprehended within it.60 Corollary to the existence of this unitary line of time, for Husserl, is the “time consciousness,” the sense of change within the mind, in a constant “stream of experience.”61 The awareness that “now” is not the same as either “before” or “after” is crucial for the mind to be able to understand its durational experience, yet the contents of these forms are variable. In particular, the “actual now” must be set apart from the rest of the stream of consciousness in order to be perceived as an event, a mental act Husserl describes as “adumbration”62 that may be either active or passive.

Yet, adumbration is often conceived as a visual concept, the “shading off” of an object of perception from the surrounding stimuli in the stream of experience.63 Heidegger describes the contrasting act of auditory adumbration as one of “hearkening,” distinct from mere hearing.64 Heidegger’s sonic percept is adumbrated from the rest of sonic stimuli immediately in association with the origin of the sound. The stream of conscious experience tends to link sonic percepts in time with their expected origins: wagons, motorcycles, and woodpeckers. This explanation of hearkening, or sonic adumbration, would seem simple enough were the sources of sounds always self-evident. Indeed, most of life is structured around these relatively correct guesses. Rather than being hung up on the range of possibilities, our estimates tend to be sufficient for reaction or inaction, and they remain almost always within the framework of passive intuitions.65

Sounds of unknown origin pose quite a problem for Heidegger, Husserl, and Schütz. If the constituting process of subjective meaning requires that the observer notice a sensation as experience, then one must hearken to the sound within temporal parameters. Though many sounds do not require a boundary in time in order to select them out from the abundance of experience, sounds of unknown origin must be delimited from the rest of sonic stimuli and attributed a length of time. For the study of gallery sound, the length of the sonic percept to which we hearken is crucial for the question of whether we are, in fact, listening to the same thing. Furthermore, many of these sounds are not intended to point to origins, as opposed to both visualized and acousmatic diegetic sound in cinema.66 Rather, these sounds exist as objects-in-themselves, not gesturing toward a recognizable origin but entering cultural space as both signifier and signified in a single sensory experience.67

These phenomenological differences between vision and hearing can further our theories of perception. The temporal dimension of setting one’s eyes on a visual percept is quite different from the act of focusing one’s ears on the procession of sound through the stream of conscious experience. Not only are the brackets of temporal adumbration on the sonic percept relative to the listener, but also it is possible for that listener to step in and out of submersion in the stream of consciousness at all, giving attention to sonic stimuli in varying degrees.68 Bracketing off the internal time consciousness subjectively determines the sonic percept in ways that visual percepts are not. As we have considered, the listener may or may not focus attention on a sonic percept, and a moment of reflection is necessary to emerge from the passive state of hearing into focused listening. Active eyes are mobile organs, while passive ears are receptive ones, waiting for sounds to cue mental attention. These temporal and attentional transformations of sound have significant effects on the meanings associated with them, as well as the way meaning is ascribed to auditory culture.

In addition to extending notions of perception beyond the paradigmatic sense of sight, what about broadening the sense of hearing to expanded listening?69 These aesthetic and phenomenological theories have not considered the diversity of abilities afforded by the many bodies that engage in the process of perception. Hearing is not a single capacity but rather exists on a broad spectrum that includes partial and total impairment, deafness, loss over the lifespan, as well as the use of assistive technology, yet the history of these theories of perception has tended to presume a norm of sensory ability.70 Rather than adopting that norm of sensory perception in hearing, multisensory perception takes form in expanded listening.71 Whether conceived as a cochlear response, tactile sensation, or other experiences of pressure in the body,72 the vast notion of expanded listening reaches the broad diversity of bodies in perceptual process as a strict notion of hearing cannot. Though the body is the receptor of sensory stimuli in the sense of hearing, the power relations of signification within auditory culture point toward a distribution of the sensible73 that pertains to the gallery arts and beyond.

Furthermore, if the phenomenological apprehension of sound can be so varied in the mind and body of one social subject to another, then what is the role of the “concept” in sound art? Perhaps the concept enacts power over the perceiving body of the individual—in its mildest form offering guidance for what can be heard in the work and in its strongest form dominating the process of semiosis. Attentionally, the conceptual statement instructs the listener how to engage in noesis, defining which sounds are worthy of attention and on what terms. Temporally, the concept helps to adumbrate the important sounds within a work from the sounds of the rest of life. Though listeners can move throughout the gallery, the reading of a concept often forms a bracket around the sounds perceived in the space. The conceptual statement also supplies a meaningful and even emotional framework for listeners, particularly in the case of abstract sound works that employ varied textures, granular articulations, and ambiguous tonalities to connect with affect in unconventional ways. Conceptual statements offer guidance to rein in the possible attentional, temporal, and other meaningful features that listeners might attach to sound in galleries and art museums, but they also have the capacity to dominate the signifying processes of bodies within their domains.

If hearing and expanded listening are unique among the senses in these ways, then the relationship between concepts and sonic sensations warrants further scrutiny. Specifically, how do sensing subjects move from the process of attaching meaning to ascribing value? Judgment and conviction are dual forms of valuation, originating from distinct subjective processes. Just as the meaning of a work in sound is understood according to the conditions of attention and adumbration, the mind and body also ascribe value in unique ways. Consistencies of value within social groups rely on shared understandings, and these understandings take the form of cultivated tastes and embodied sensations. These two oppositions—judgment and conviction, taste and sensation—elucidate the aesthetic controversy between the value of conceptual and ambient sound art.

Judgment and Conviction

The phenomenological process of valuation in sound art, particularly in ambient soundscapes, is a complicated one. Whereas the Gestalt school of psychology imagined a concurrent moment of visual perception and judgment,74 Husserl disentangled these aspects of the consciousness not only as separate moments in time but also as distinct social processes: judgment and conviction. For Husserl, judgment comes from an active synthesis, while conviction comes from a passive doxa.75 If the consciousness has two modes of sensory apprehension—one actively searching out an object, giving it attention, and understanding its relative position among similar objects and the other passively receiving a percept and bringing it to awareness—then judgment and conviction are two modes of valuation conditioned on the practices of the perceiving mind. In the case of hearkening to sound, judgment is more likely, with the listener drawing attention to the object and assessing its value. On the other hand, the ambient sonic soundscape, whether in everyday life or in the gallery, lends itself to the passive reception of stimuli through doxa76 and conviction of meaning and value. Though a judicative determination comes from the decision to take a position—to make a judgment—a conviction finds the self already to “be determined.” Thus, the conviction that arises from passive perception issues directly from a determined self, a manifestation of Bourdieu’s use of doxa77 as the “quasi-perfect correspondence between the objective order and the subjective principles” whereby “the natural and social world appears as self-evident.”78 Though conscious judgment might call to mind rubrics of value and ordinal rankings of worth—acts of economic agencement79the determined self that experiences the doxa of conviction may not necessarily deem aesthetic value to be economic.

Such a relation between the determined self and passive conviction seems quite likely in ambient sonic spaces, yet the textual basis of a conceptual work in sound lends itself to an act of incisive judgment. When a conceptual statement posits a meaning in connection with a sensory percept, it constrains the process of noesis and, in so doing, also restricts the range of possible noematic content in the sound.80 Indeed, some practitioners voiced frustration with not only the redundancy of meanings expressed by conceptual works in sound but also the limited range of critical responses, two aspects of the art world that constitute one another. With meaningful space rigidly defined for listeners, the types of judgments they may obtain are bound by similar stricture. Furthermore, the direct correlation between text and value in conceptual sound makes it possible to bypass the sensing body altogether. Artists’ frustration that so much contemporary work in sound can be distilled into a single line on an art mailer or a gimmick shared through social media may derive from this relation between the convictions of a determined, perceiving self and the judgments of a cultivated, reasoning mind. In both cases, the value of the percept is derivative of the type of perception from whence it comes: the passive gathering of sensations or the active seeking of meanings. The formal, ambient work in the former case draws its value from the already-surrounding sensory environment and is disposed to convictions. The conceptual, textual work in the latter case ascribes value by focusing attention on the linguistic meanings supplied by the artist or curator and tends toward judgment.

Taste and Sensation

Though the contents of these judgments and convictions can be quite varied, their relations with identities and power are systematically and unequally socially distributed. In the case of formal works in sound, convictions about the valuable qualities of sound can come alongside beliefs about the self in the gallery, most notably if gallery sound is “for me” or “not for me.” The fraction of the public entering galleries and museums to hear sound art is narrowly identified in terms of wealth, race, and education, each determined by the field of power, as are the practices of listening within them.81 Though the knowledge of value in contemporary art does not require social privilege in order to be gained, per se, it comes attendant with cultural power in the knowing of it. If the distinction between judgment and conviction extends to that between taste and sensation, then these principles of aesthetic valuation might also extend beyond the niche discipline of sound art.

Recalling the cultivation of aesthetic taste in Kant is a way to understand the basis of these evaluations. The concepts of truth, propriety, justice, and so forth, like those conceptual bases of sound in the gallery arts, do not live in the “empirical senses” alone but are also the products of cognition engaged in the reflective action of the public sense, the sensus communis aestheticus,82 conditioned on class, race, and power. This “cultivated taste” relies on what it calls “universal” aesthetic principles drawn from a social stock of knowledge, as judgments. Dewey extended a critique of cultivated taste in the critic’s knowledge of “the tradition of his particular art,” reminding that there is no single tradition, as some critics might have us believe.83 Each tradition has an internal logic of value, and the “knowledge of many traditions is no foe to discrimination.”84 Groups of people learn similar things. They encounter stimuli, identify elements of them, discuss these elements with others, and identify connections between elements based on these discussions and education; taste is necessarily cultivated in the context of power.85

These consistencies of learned distinction manifest both in the passive doxa of aesthetic conviction and in the active cultivation of aesthetic judgment. Yet, if distinctions are learned both through the senses and through language, then these two modes of acquiring the knowledge of value might be distributed unequally through the social body and mind. A theory of sensory learning clarifies the problem that both Dewey86 and Martin87 found in Kant’s notion of the uncultivated taste. In addition to the dispositions of class, power, and habitus that lead to the doxa,88 sensory stimuli undergo a process of learning from birth to death, the accumulation of meanings, convictions, and judgments to develop a sense of what is valuable according to shared notions of identity.89

The specter of this essay has been the role of the social body in perceiving and valuing sound. Each of these theories locates the moment of sensory reception in this social body, yet that moment is particular to the attention and adumbration of the perceiving mind. These relations between art, bodies, power, and politics are fertile ground for a new social aesthetics. Rancière imagines an “emancipated spectator” in art and performance contexts, blurring “the boundary between those who act and those who look, between individuals and members of a collective body.”90 In the world of gallery sound, an emancipated listener might blur further binaries, including those stylized in Sterne’s audiovisual litany.91 Although the artist statement has traditionally been an objective space for meaning to be specified, clarified, and judged between artist and audience, Rancière describes an aesthetic “sensorium” that does not require an intermediary text, an aesthetic way of being-together in time and space “where communication is no longer unidirectional.”92

Though the emancipated listener might achieve a degree of autonomy through the sensuous, expanded perception of sound, arts institutions are deeply engrained with “techniques of the body”93 that are both effective and traditional. In the gallery, visitors tend to quiet their voices and move slowly; except in rare circumstances, they do not touch the objects of art they encounter. They may move closer or farther away from these objects in order to perceive them from varying perspectives, and they determine the amount of time devoted to the perception of each object. However, the bodily techniques of concert music contexts are quite different. Listeners tend to be seated and do not move their bodies closer to sound sources to change their perception of the music. Concert music techniques prepare bodies to hear with precision and focus, and galleries and museums continue to orient around points of view.

Yet, the predominantly visual contexts of galleries do not foreclose the possibility of bodies learning new techniques of expanded listening; on the contrary, new possibilities are rapidly arising. When listeners are seated for concert music, they are relatively immobile, experiencing one spatial location from which to perceive the sounds emitting from a stage or speakers. In the gallery, however, bodies can move freely, experiencing the interaction of sound and space through time. Not only in terms of changing amplitude by modulating distances from sound sources, but also through experiencing precise reverberation patterns and timbral spectra, mobile listeners can encounter a range of sound from a single source. This movement lends itself to site-specific sound installation, made possible by the affordances of the gallery. At the same time, the gallery arts also present perceptual limitations that can frustrate artists and listeners alike: the tendencies for sound to bleed from one piece into the next, for technology to be maladaptive to four white walls, and even for works to be para-located in liminal hallways, echoing stairways, abrupt elevators, and noisy bathrooms. The cavernous reverberance of empty galleries along with competing sounds from bodies, the surrounding environment, and even a listener’s own footsteps make museum and gallery spaces suboptimal for cochlear hearing. Practitioners pointed to these challenges as further explanation for the emphasis on conceptual texts in gallery sound.

Despite the affordances and limitations of galleries, they provide a crucial opportunity for discussion that many concerts do not. Though the current aesthetic regime may be built on written and performed language, particularly in disciplines such as literature, theater, song, and conceptual art, a sonic sensorium would not be the domain of text alone. The performance of speech, for Rancière, belongs to the representative regime and is bound to a double restraint.94 At once restraining the sense of vision from showing the unspeakable and excluding the pathos of knowledge, this type of speech is found to be a limitation rather than assistant to aesthetic practice. What is the unique capacity of the image, after all, if not to show the unspeakable? To expand the (ambient) sensorium beyond the sense of sight into the realm of expanded listening, this capacity to perceive the unspeakable may be a similarly valuable aspect of auditory culture. Not only does abstract sound art detach itself from the direct representation of the sound source—no longer pointing explicitly to wagons, motorcycles, and woodpeckers as hearkened in phenomenology—but also ambient soundscapes fragment conceptual meanings. Instead of providing readymade representations, the sensorium allows sound to resonate uniquely within each inhabitant’s body alongside the opportunity to discuss these expanded listening practices.

This aesthetic community looks more like the space of forces and flows than a unidirectional communicative path.95 The artist does not only express a concept through a work or statement, but the listeners, as well, can express meaning through interpretation and discourse. In terms of auditory culture, Salomé Voegelin suggests that the phenomenon of sound is particularly suited to discourse, questioning all the surfaces against which sound waves reflect and reverberate before entering conscious perception.96 Unifying the work and the world is yet another way to dissolve the binary puzzle of cause and effect, the false dichotomy of subject and object. In this way, the work in sound is not necessarily void of spoken language, but it does open a discourse rather than issue an edict. As well, the work is not deconceptualized but rather has the possibility of infinite reconceptualization in the openness of artistic communities’ response and conversation.97 Corollary to this reconceptualization of meaning and subjectivity in art is its value-in-context. Unseating artists’ and gatekeepers’ unilateral authority to ascribe value to works, aesthetic discourse is both enlivened and newly responsible to its own discussants.

But what of the diversity of bodily ability to see and hear in the gallery? In opposition to the sound art practitioners who emphasized conceptual language to ascribe political value to art,98 others tended to reconstruct a biological order of bodies’ sensory abilities—such as seeing or hearing—to ascribe aesthetic value.99 Some readings of Rancière’s philosophy of embodiment fall into this trap. And yet, conceptual sound art also reinscribes an ordered ranking of the embodied abilities of literacy and cognition, embedded within fields of class, education, and power. Perhaps emerging avant-garde multimedia and multisensory arts, including ambient spaces of sound, light, and other sensory stimuli, might rely neither on abstract concepts nor on specific sensory capabilities of bodies. The body is a nexus of sensation, language, and meaning, the site where waves of light, sound, and pressure take on aesthetic value. Although the differences between the senses of seeing and hearing as valuation practices are useful for a social aesthetics, the diversity of sensory and cognitive ability in the body open the field onto expanded terrain.

If these sonic and multimodal sensoria assert the equality of interpreting subjectivity, they also construct an alternate aesthetic imaginary against the backdrop of hierarchical positions in political and social reality; the equal sensory landscape of aesthetic practice is stylized against the relief of unequal power.100 In conversation with Jürgen Habermas’s rational structure for the linguistification of the sacred,101 Rancière’s theory of the political also critiques Émile Durkheim’s classical understanding of solidarity102 through the aesthetic realm of the “sacred.”103 Habermas theorizes language as the means to transform the belief in sacredness into a new shared meaning of value.104 As postmodern cultures have become increasingly individuated from collective consciousness,105 Habermas finds that spoken and textual language are necessary to arrive at consensus over concrete values. In pursuit of the good life of happiness and well-being, social subjects individuate themselves as distinctive, singular, and peculiar,106 ascribing less often to shared notions of the sacred. What might once have been communicated through sacred symbols of the collective consciousness now must be rendered legible through logical language.

Instead, Rancière imagines another way to engage in political discourse over “the good” without the aid of a mediating text. Bodies perceive and judge sound and sight differently, and, absent a textual “third” mediation such as a conceptual statement,107 this bodily autonomy can become the site of both self-determination108 and a discourse of shared norms and values.109 In the case of sound art, bodies can inhabit the gallery to share time and attention in a sensorium, but purely conceptual work does not similarly require mutual engagement. Thus, a conceptual, linguistic statement transports readily from the gallery wall to the social media news feed, but ambient sound requires physical or virtual presence to become valuable. Concepts also transmit fluidly through critical discourse in ways that embodied encounters with sound do not always do. Where critical texts have been able to objectify, rank, and economize the value of conceptual sound art, they have sometimes failed to do so with ambient works in sound, opening expanded listening communities onto their own new forms of emancipated discourse, as well.

Just as one must learn to read in order to understand the conceptual content of some sound art, one must learn to listen in order to gather the nuanced character of formal or ambient works in sound. Though the broad meaning of some sounds may be gathered from the sensus communis, each perceiving mind transforms the experience of sound art according to noetic attention and temporal adumbration. When that experience is conceptual, the listener can actively judge textual value according to cultivated taste, yet the sensation of ambient sound lends itself to the evaluative doxa of convictions that arise from a diversity of social positions. The possibility Rancière presents—that an embodied, emancipated listener might be able to freely associate meanings and values with these ambient experiences—affords a new possibility for connecting political discourse with aesthetic production, championing the diversity of community interpretation rather than the domination of an artist or institution over bodies.110,111

Though this theoretical investigation into expanded listening describes space for newly valuable experiences in the gallery arts, the ethical implications of sensation extend beyond the narrowly defined art world explored here.112 Concepts are not only granted moral authority in the arts but in overtly political spheres, as well. With new media flows and economic assemblages quickly shifting the nature of knowledge and value in digital contexts, embodied sensoria may be a new way to ground an open discourse through perception. Though co-presence may seem outmoded in some forms of political action, the principles of hasty transmission and reductive distillation of concepts may apply to these spheres of social activity, including the public sphere.113 Sensing bodies emancipated from the single authoritative voice of a speaker, public figure, or media conglomerate may be able to newly imagine moral frameworks that were otherwise thought to be impossible.114 Though the transformative potential of explicitly political conceptual art has been challenged from within and beyond the art world, the possibilities for an emancipated listener may expand social engagement through embodied sensory understanding.


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