Responses on -empyre- list

CATThe reasons I am writing this might not make perfect sense without the full responses, which are on the empyre list and comments on the previous post here, but my return post was an attempt to clarify where questioned and engage where challenged. Was useful for me if no-one else:

Hi All, Apologies for being slow at responding, some family difficulties have taken precedence, and the never ending routines of.. well, no need to whine on about it.

Many many thanks for the responses and comments. I was planning a post that would take us elsewhere, but time already achieved that. Let’s say I am happy to stick with the productivity of going ‘off topic’ in good directions, of even being out of sync – and of later attempting difficult crossings and even slightly impatient and breathless connection making (which I really liked, thanks Micha).

The thing about audio in cinema/movies is that while lip-service is paid to the ‘silence … action on set’ its exactly that priority – silence because the action will start that has sound continually relegated to the status of a second class citizen. Sound recording is fraught, often forgotten – and we have become very much accustomed to images, they seem easy (sure, they are not, but…), well, sound is not of equal import in the discourse on film, and that’s just the problem. When I was teaching documentary film (in my first ten years at Goldsmiths) there was one clear consequence of the limited resources we had. Picture image was pretty good on the various cheap-ish cameras available, such as TVR 900 and so on, but the sound was terrible. And when it came to editing, if the sound was terrible, that was about as good as things got. Great images, crap sound, often meant disaster. Some great films were made (you can see them on Daily Motion) but oftentimes they could have been a whole lot better.

“Except in music videos and cartoons, the soundtrack seems always to exist in function of the image” – Menotti

But even in music videos the sound seemed to be relegated – as Andrew Goodwin long ago argued in “Dancing in the Distraction Factory”, critics had become deaf. I don’t think he was just bemoaning the fact that New Romantic music was dominated by rubbish fashion. That he includes factory in the title of his book did not align him with Adorno or the autonomists, but it would have been nice if it had – I think there is something to be explored in the way the visual – surveillance, coding, presence – belongs to the realm of production under capital. The grooves of the record industry riff on this over and over, a culture industry, a distraction factory, a machine for value extraction. In the cinema no-one lets you scream.

I am happy to hear talk of mediation (Menotti), as without mediation, or rather without theorising mediation, I think we remain unable to comprehend what is going on. To the extent the cinema escapes its older factory conditions, it escapes via a mediation into new conditions, new circuits of occupying the city-space/our lives. Without mediation between the image and the production apparatus, there are only reified fixations – on the image, on the auteur, on the screen mechanics, even on the circuit. I like to call this trinketization – a limiting fascination with abstracted and isolated components of a system that cannot be grasped without a theory of mediation. The trinketization syndrome is very strong in cultural studies (objects, things, the fetish of commodities) and also in cinema (close ups, Kane’s Rosebud). Here Adorno chastised Benjamin writing his Arcades project wanting to have the things (all those bits and pieces of Paris etc he collected for so long, snowdomes and the like) communicate with each other in some kind of auto-dialectical arrangement. Adorno insisted this could not stand without a theory of relation, of mediation. I’ve long been a fan of juxtaposition, but agree that mere montage, revolutionary once, has so readily been co-opted by the culture industry that its no longer even raising eyebrows. The famous picture of Sergei Eisenstien shaking hands with Mickey Mouse is a trinket to ironize exactly this.

I’ve a slowly gestating piece on Citizen Kane (oh no, not again) along these lines, developed slowly as the opening to my lecture course on Marx’s “Capital” (lecture one – ‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense collection of commodities’ – Kane collects… Without Kane, without the mediation that is Kane as capital, Kane in Xanadu, Kane and politics, newspapers, media (without Kane as William Randolph Hearst…) there are only trinkets, only Rosebuds. For the record, the gist is in these posts:–-zizek’s-parallax-viewpoint/

What I meant when I suggested – just threw it out there really – that “the city, and the border, is an audio-visual enclosure” is that the border is not just at the airport or the seaport, or the passport control check. The border extends, like sound, into every register of our lives. I have to refer to the back catalogue again here. A post on trinketization from the anniversary of Sputnik, in honour of Leika:

The border is not only geography and vision – though a line on the map and the sign at immigration control are our most immediate experiences of control – the border is also a process, an order, an iteration, uneven, performative and aural. The border is not just at the edge or boundary, it is also in the street, in the post, in the pub. The border operates between people. The hand raised to silence the offer of the migrant DVD salesperson who interrupts your quiet enjoyment of a beer – that too is a brutal moment of border control. Although of course we can insist that state boundaries are also porous, continually bypassed, more and less easily, in so many different ways; immigration control still stands as a block to movement and mediation.

The resonance of the war and power is strong here – echoing with the sounds of silence, dispossession and death to which our eyes become deaf, our ears have become blind.

Is our boundary prejudice built into the structure of the border control? A logic of presence, geography and vision govern the strong sense of truth that belongs to knowledge. We say knowledge is divided into fields (geography) and seem most often to designate knowing through a confident designation. We indicate truths by pointing (vision), there is presence in understanding. Now perhaps there is an alternative in the metaphoric code with which we name movement and sound. It may be possible to hear a more critical tone, to raise questions about the assertions of certitude – when critical we say we are not sure we agree, we doubt, we say we do not like the tone. Can thinking through travel and sound suggest new ways of linking across the borders between us all – as sound crosses the border in ways that tamper with visual and geographic blocks (pirate radio, music, language, the sound of falling bombs…). But we also say, when critical, that we cannot see the point. Ahh, with this last the too easy divide of metaphor into those that point and assert knowledge through vision and those that question and challenge through sound does finally break down. But perhaps there is something in sound that can suggest more, that allows us at least to listen to another possibility, temporarily opening up ears and minds.

It is often thought, but we could be more precise – that movement across borders of all kinds is a good thing, breaking taboos and genre rules is an unmitigated good. Of course, cross disciplinarity is claimed as a boon (in cultural studies for sure), but clearly other crossings – of capital, of weapons, of imperial power – are not so welcome. Capital moves one way, surplus value extraction another. Cross-border global movement (music distribution, television news, democracy) might not always be a boon. No doubt pirate radio enjoys much approval, but communications media also have a less favourable heritage (radio as used, say, by the National Socialists in Germany) and present (the contemporary normative narrations of ‘democracy’ by the Voice of America, the BBC, or with the televisual uniformity of CNN). A more careful thinking that notes the metaphors of critique, distinguishes movement and sonic registers that affirm or disavow, works to undo that which destroys and divides, fosters that which unites, organises capacity to live otherwise with others…

Crossing the border, a great achievement, pushing the boundaries, also sometimes caught and fraught in contradictions. For cross-disciplinarity and border transgression, against control by Capital – we need to sublate movement out of, under and around control. No simple task. The sound of a dog barking in space might caution against uncritical celebrations. Lest we forget Laika, dead on  Sputnik 2 these 51 years ago today.

And earlier, an attempt to suggest we could start working against a geographical model of the Border or the Boundary. If we recognize the border is not just the port, but the entire city, as in “everywhere, in everything we do”, in each interaction between people related, somehow somewhere to belonging – how violent this is – if we recognize the border as a wall between us all, then we might see reason to have to reconfigure the very idea of nation, boundary and movement that so distracts us. Secondly, the border is not just at the edge, but at any port, at the immigration office, in the postal service that delivers the visa, in the police checks, the detention procedure – in the everyday reactions of people to each other even as they stand and stare. Thirdly, if we think of the way sound and meaning travels across the border, might we start to develop ways of thinking critically against this geographic boundary – and the old models of nation, culture, race that the border secures? What would it be to ask critically about, and so reject, the way we have fixed the border through property, maps, geography – and so leave that space that has been deaf to other movements, transmissions, resonances. Would this work things differently, otherwise?

Which might be what I might – maybe – could – possibly have meant by “filming your way across”? The ‘second life’ of theoretical language (thanks Johannes, I like that) is pretty useless if it does not provoke suggestions that might lead us to actions more effective, more capable, more able to win (against Capital, which has tanks and theory… there is so much more to do here… but I must run elsewhere).

Thanks so much for the time, if you read this far. I will lurk on…



4 thoughts on “Responses on -empyre- list

  1. Dear all, dear John

    your last posting is moving.

    i now have a better sense of the implications of your ‘filming your way across border”, and the image of the outstretched hand — when the migrant workers approaches you to sell something — resonates.

    I tend to like buying music or finding it in the border regions of markets and arcades, passages. also, as you suggest strongly, contra Gabriel Menotti, sound could interest us more now than the image, precisely because it has been so often relegated.
    I find the image poorly anchored in many productions i see,
    In dance the music is rather crucial, as it its absence.

    I tried to learn more about sound and its relationship to the visual, and am currently reading Michel Chion, and like the way i am re-learning more now about sonic arts, sound art/acousmatiics. (Chion, Michel [1990], Audio-Vision. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). It appears that not much has been said about movement and sound, but I felt immediately, John, when you started writing, that hearing has something to do with breathing, and moving listening (we are not static, we are not still, and as you rightly say, the term soundscape is problematic as it seems modeled on the visual studies terminologies of the visual / landscape, the representational).

    You have now extended the notion (circuits) of sound and the metaphor of the border far beyond the visual geographies, maps and vision. do we hear the point (“reconstructing the field through sound”, writes anthropolgist Tim Ingold, who wrote a fierce critique of soundscape) you make about movement and mediation, power, capital weapons, securities, affirmation and disavowal?

    Which might be what I might – maybe – could – possibly have meant by
    “filming your way across”? The ‘second life’ of theoretical language (thanks
    Johannes, I like that) is pretty useless if it does not provoke suggestions
    that might lead us to actions more effective, more capable, more able to win
    (against Capital, which has tanks and theory. there is so much more to do
    here. but I must run elsewhere).

    the elsewhere interests me now that you mention the dog in (outer) space. i heard someone say that you wouldn’t be hearing sound in space, it would be completely silent? is that true? floating, listening, in silence?
    The BBC chose last weekend to show “The Right Stuff” (dir.Philip Kaufman) again, strange timing, as you mention the russian space program, I presume, you are refering to the cold war. the cold war mediated the space race and the tremendous investments into those technologies, NASA, etc., but borders now also were crossed, afterwards (MIR was up there when the soviet union vanished, as film will vanish — i gather that is postulated in “The Virtual Life of Film” by D. N. Rodowick, and now we have the Russian and US astronauts work nicely together in the current “space programs”. what changed the mediation here, and the political realities, what opened the hungarian and czech borders in 1989, and i don’t mean geographically but conceptually?

    i want to distract you with you a few reflections on movement and vertebrae. how do feel your bones and cartilages?
    this is what came to me, after reading your comments on borders as “a process, an order, an iteration, uneven, performative and aural”.

    I attended a dance workshop in Austria (CHOREOLAB, at Krems Donau Universität) in mid-September, and learnt a lot again about my inner structure and about listening; many of the physical or somatic workshops took place both indoors and outdoors, and some of the outdoor work was called “Cartography bodymemento”, and i think cartography was here meant as an internal kind of mapping, not necessarily “visual” and projective. “memento” offers rich associations for you, i hope (not with trinkets).

    so, we had been working indoors and outdoors, on body mind and structural imagining of our body and senses, there was a group of 28 or 29 people from diverse places and backgrounds; It’s called Choreolab as it addresses choreographers, but the workshop also crosses over, wants to explore interdisciplinarity; seminars stretch from dance to architecture to neuroscience, music, and so on. the campus in Krems is a mix of old baroque and hypermodern architectures, with strange faux mosaics on the campus lawns….i learnt much about how others move and reflect on movement.

    On occasion it’s strange for me to be “somaticized” , to lie still and have someone go through your anatomy with you, bone by bone …….

    then did the blind exercises, sounding, singing, then touching and haptic feedback exercises. then leading someone around the room (on trust),

    then shift to outdoors, leading someone through the town, into the vineyards, up the hills, along the river, for 2 hours,
    then we had to draw the experience on paper, then recompose it = dance it.

    always with a partner (s)he leads, then you lead.

    my partner was Manuel, a male dancer from Vienna. I took him far out into the hiils, past large farms and then crumbling shacks, fences half covered with moss. One turns romantic, undoubtedly, even without seeing. One learns to appreciate such climates where a deeper understanding of body and mind also perhaps leads to a deeper respect for humanness and one another, caring, for the vulnerability. after all, Manuel led me home (after I had led him “astray” into the thickets) , back to the campus, across the whole urbs, and we ended up, i could sense, in some glass elevator going up and up, before i was allowed to open eyes. i had them closed at all times, and trusted and allowed being led through what sounded in my ears like wind, branches, bells, water, then traffic, cars, train, bikes, strange sounds not definable, cracklings, textures that i also sensed with feet., I heard screeching tires, someone yelling, and horns honking, and so I’d wave at them, the honkers unbeknownst to me. perhaps they found it odd that an older man was led around by a younger man, as if we were a couple exploring the brave new world, say, after a hurricane.

    Later Manuel danced my wave, in front of the water basin and a strange beautiful curved sculpture that sits provocatively in front of the old baroque façade of Krems Donau-University, which used to be a wealthy imperial tobacco factory, and was then converted into this future looking place of (“live long”) learning, surrounded in all parts of the campus by artworks and sculptures., and the local high security prison right on the opposite side of the baroque facade of the academy. Beyond, neighbors had hoisted a large banner complaining that the new structure has taken away their vista to the Donau. They phrased it ironically: “Thank you, Donau Universitiät, for enhancing our sights. Your neighbors”.

    Johannes Birringer
    dap lab / dans sans joux

  2. Now, on with the ‘offtopics’:

    >Sound recording is fraught, often forgotten – and we have become very
    >much accustomed to images, they seem easy (sure, they are not,
    >but…), well, sound is not of equal import in the discourse on film, and
    >that’s just the problem. [John Hutnyk]

    I still think it is a matter of perspective. Maybe the theatre
    audience doesn’t pay attention to the importance of sound, but isn’t
    that expected? Ever since earlier forms of spectacle, the role of
    sound is not to be /noticed/, but to be (for the lack of a better
    term) incorporated. If you are listening to the score, that means it
    is not working as it should. The soundtrack should not be perceived as
    a detached thing, but (on the contrary) collaborate to congruity of
    the whole audiovisual piece and its correspondence to the mediatic
    experience, creating mood, presence – producing visuality, in a way. A
    good deal of the gruesomeness of movies such as Texas Chainsaw
    Massacre and Audition is pure sound design! Sound produces stabs that
    never happened (and sometimes compensate bad montage – e.g.

    It really is a shame that critics followed the same lines of the
    spectators and “became deaf” even when they are out of the theatre.
    However, as you have pointed out, the /moviemakers/ are always very
    critical about sound. Sound may not have that much importance on the
    discourse /on/ film, but it is preponderant to the discourse /of/
    film. First and foremost, voice is, both in the form of dramatic
    dialogue and of the disembodied voice over narration – which even
    before the sonorization of film was used to give meaning (order) to
    silent images.

    Moreover, sound is used to foster the illusion of correspondence
    between image and abstracted space, cheating the process of
    abstraction (that is why I personally think it is complicated to bring
    sound to the discussion, when trying to understand similarities
    between different process of spatial abstraction). For instance, you
    said that the movies you made “could have been a whole lot better” if
    you had good sound recording equipment, but why is that so? Because
    they would have sounded better? Isn’t it that just a technical
    judgment, following the ideal of representational aesthetics? =)

    >Without mediation between the image and the production apparatus,
    >there are only reified fixations – on the image, on the auteur, on the
    >screen mechanics, even on the circuit. I like to call this trinketization –
    >a limiting fascination with abstracted and isolated components of a
    >system that cannot be grasped without a theory of mediation. [JH]

    Ha, indeed! But I wonder if cinema (and media in general) has ever
    being treated as anything but a trinket (posing a problem to
    constitute a theory of mediation in the first place).

    >It appears that not much has been said about movement and sound,
    >but I felt immediately, John, when you started writing, that hearing has
    >something to do with breathing, and moving listening (we are not
    >static, we are not still […] [Johannes Birringer]

    Yes, good point. However, we can perceive in cinema precisely the
    effort to fixate bodies to a certain extent. This process is necessary
    to the representational logic – to put the audience where its gaze can
    correspond to (and henceforth be substituted by) what Anne Friedberg
    calls the machine’s “mobile virtual gaze”. But I wonder if technical
    audio (in correspondence to technical images) really escapes this
    logic. Isn’t there anything like a “mobile virtual ear” always at

    In cinema, at least, sound comes from a set of speakers strategically
    positioned, and the soundtrack has to be mixed and equalized
    beforehand in relation to this system, in order to reproduce the
    diegetic spatiality of sound. What I mean is that the actual
    soundtrack (the information) is different depending if you have a
    stereo or dolby system, even though they are intended to produce the
    same aural perception in the audience.

    Therefore, I’d say that cinema, as a system of spatial disposition,
    process image and sound in very similar ways. Of course, when you
    consider dancing for example, you have a very different situation –
    but dance music is different of soundtracks in the same way vj gigs
    are different of feature premieres.

    >It seems that an important element to consider in Denied Distances is
    >the activity of desire, what is denied and what is let in, how does the
    >denial amplify our wanting, and how does the rhetoric of the removal of
    >distance from everything in the contemporary world actually add
    >distance, when that which seems to be closest to our skin is farthest
    >away. (Micha)

    Definitely, if on the one hand the public is positioned to identify
    with the machine and let it fulfil its perception, it is in a place
    where it’s kept excited. Thinking through this tension using Metz’s
    idea of the double voyeurism, we might find that this excitation comes
    from the identification with the image / diegesis. So the public
    chooses to be safe within the mechanism to feel the thrills of the
    story – and that’s where the distances are denied? Is mediation always
    this double-sided process?


  3. Thanks Gabriel for thoughtful responses.

    I think they do get towards a discussion of what I would like to hear.

    I mean, from the outset, I sought to introduce a disruption, a little distortion, an echo of criticism in the framing… IF we were to rewind and start again I would like to begin less with the issue of perspective, than to question the very idea. I think to start with perspective again privileges vision as the first move – and I wonder, talking to myself no doubt, if the tenor of discussion might be quite different if our metaphors were not from the first fixed in the visual.

    There is often a more critical register in sound metaphors (tone, tenor, questioning), such that I wonder if we made the effort to re-attune the code in which we speak about film, then the trinket could not be so easily isolated and fixed, the dialectic of mediation might not be thought of in terms of two sides, and the cinema hall and the city would not only be a space. Can we hear film otherwise – the ear of the other, otobiographies (Derrid(a)issonance again) -, perhaps our concerns about translation could govern the way we speak of circuits maybe – could this ‘lead’ us ‘elsewhere’? or rather would this sound us a variation, or distract us, via declension, into something new and distinct, if not informed by a diagnostic, at least argumentative and resonant? Could we then change our tune?

    I don’t know. I offered it as an experiment. Maybe a haiku.

    So, can I add a little graffiti to make sure the city is kept ‘off’ topic?

    What if we could translate everything that has been said of the city into a different code – would we, like Borges’ map-makers, then live elsewhere? Be in a different movie?

    I am first of all against translation as it is mad,
    its impossible,
    it cannot ever be true to origins,
    its a kind of violence,
    it is always political,
    it transforms,
    it is creative,
    it is heroic to try,
    it is the essence of communicability,
    it is exchange,
    it disrupts parochialism,
    it is the foundation of internationalism,
    it is what we all should be trying to do,
    it is the most revolutionary activity,
    it is social,
    it is life itself,
    I am for it.
    (November 2005)

  4. Just wondering about the opening section of this post – addressing the primacy of audio linked with the image.

    What about the presence of musical-non-musicals in film? I’m thinking mainly about Hollywood films like American Graffiti (1973), Dazed and Confused (1993), Casino (1995), etc. Films where the function of the soundtrack is invariably to set the tone of a scene and the drive of a film … little syntactic nods thrown at the audience via a collage of parallel signification in sound … Ben Affleck beating a high school freshman to the tune of ‘No More Mr. Niceguy’ by Alice Cooper or a similar act of brutal violence by Joe Pesci accented with ‘Street Fighting Man’ by the Rolling Stones. Acts that would be repellent if they weren’t diluted with a shot of popular culture … the forced pacification of our attitudes toward violence via the injection of a jingle or ringtone to go along with the image. Sound, or more specifically, soundtrack is not secondary in these instances. In the same way that the image of the comely young lady at the bar is not the purpose of the beer commercial, the young lady becomes the primary referent while the product is the pathway to the mirage. The song played over the act is the primary element in the presentation. The actions displayed on screen are just a part of that clunky, irritating necessity we used to refer to as plot or character development …

    Menotti was right, of course, but I’m not sure that operating as a function of the image or, more specifically, pointing out that the existence or the presence of the audio is dependent on the contextual limits of the image relegates the audio to a secondary dialectical or expositional position … Just a thought …

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