December 2010 Archives

James Krenov
Many of us want to know not only what is being done here and there, but also how it relates to certain aesthetics and sensitivity, what some regard as fixed points in our craft universe [emphasis mine]. There are, and should be, measures by which we can honestly get our bearings. Some of us who write about crafts are not pausing to include these points of orientation along with our reportage, human interest stories, and awed attention to the eccentric aspect of woodworking. We are not doing enough for those who would excel anonymously or merely within a small circle. We don't seem to know where these people are and what they need in the way of help and encouragement. Ordinary professional and craft information is only part of what they need. The rest is as yet rather vague but it consists of aesthetics, the integrity of material weighed against various methods— judged not with hair-splitting exactness, but in relationship to skill, intuition, and reverence for the life that is in the wood.

There is too little constructive evaluation. After the artiness has been aired, the exposition of clearcut rights and wrongs terminated, we should still have a lot to talk about, and share. (11)

James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinetmaker (1979)

I've been making photographs for about 35 years now, and when I first encountered Aristotle's classification of rhetoric as a techné (about ten years ago or so) I immediately started drawing parallels between the two. It's hard not to overlay what you feel like you know over the top of what you would like to know. Rhetoric, in the Aristotelian sense of being able to "see" the available means of persuasion in any situation is more than metaphorically connected with "art" — it is "art" in a quite specific sense. Although techné is usually translated as "art", it is closer to craft. Casting aside the tiresome question whether photography is an "art," the craft of photography (chemical or digital) is undeniable.

Woodworking is certainly one of the ur-crafts (arché technai). It is a new world for me to consider. Therefore, I cannot stop overlaying Krenov's pedagogical imperatives on both rhetorical and photographic education. Many writing teachers stress correctness above all else, marking with enthusiasm the most trivial of grammatical or syntactical errors. I always thought of myself as a rhetoric teacher, not a writing teacher: historically, grammar is a completely different subject and it annoys me that "writing" tends to conflate the two. Writing education that starves out rhetoric for the sake of cold correctness serves nothing but the inflation of the teachers' ego. Similarly, in arts education there can be a sort of smug emphasis on learning to identify "art" and its characteristics as a product separate from its procedures: a rating game akin to dick-measuring. As Chuck Close says (loosely paraphrased), once you've seen some art it's pretty easy to go about making something that looks like art. Similarly, students of rhetoric have a tendency to compose documents that look like rhetoric, filled with specious arguments and flourishes that cloud arguments like dandelion fluff.

Krenov's suggestion that once basic correctness and "artiness" are addressed the "relationship to skill, intuition, and reverence for the life that is in the wood" leaves an ample realm for discussion that seems deceptively metaphysic. I prefer to look at it in a more literal, physical sense. There are resonances of craft of woodworking that can be easily overlaid to other technai. There are also shared problems. As Krenov suggests, beyond "professional and craft information" the territory is vague; it would be easy to argue that "human interest stories" have no relevance to woodworking, photography, or rhetoric when they are conceived as craft (as opposed to art).

In assigning rhetoric the craft of "seeing" the available means of persuasion in a given situation rather than the ability to persuade itself, Aristotle makes all alternatives in a given situation proper material for consideration. This might be misconstrued as constituting rhetoric from/about everything, so it seems fitting that the first book of Aristotle's Rhetoric contains a long discussion regarding "speaking outside the subject."1 The "matter" of rhetoric is situational. Photography, at least in the variant that I have myself practiced, is similarly dependent on what is given by the world in a specific place and time. Any "craft universe" is necessarily a subset of the actual universe, limited to experiences with some degree of presence to the practitioner and their subjective concerns. By definition, these are matters of human interest— not as warm and fuzzy subjectivities, but rather (following Krenov) as "fixed points" whereby the craftsman can locate themselves.

The first problem in mapping the subject (either photography, rhetoric, or woodworking) is finding acceptable definitions demarcating the universe they occupy/participate in. Proclamations that "photography is dead", for example, only ring true if you class photography within a single technology circumscribed within a narrow historical moment. For example, despite its resurrections, the daguerreotype is for most purposes dead. Silver prints are clearly an endangered species as well. However, these (in my mind) are forms of photography, not photography itself. Patrick Maynard sidesteps this problem by labeling photography as a group of technologies for marking surfaces— rather than the end products or abilities engendered by those technologies.2 Aristotle's definition of rhetoric takes a different path. Rhetoric is not a technology of persuasion, but rather an ability to see the means of persuasion.

Definitions are slippery, and careful choice of terms is imperative. To step back for a moment to the definition of techné as a general field, it is helpful to note some points of evolution. My easiest and most precise recourse regarding exposition of Aristotle's conception of techné is simply to quote Joseph Dunne:

In E.N. 6, techne is defined as a hexis meta logou poiētikē, a "reasoned state of capacity to make." It is thus quite straightforwardly linked to making (poiesis), i.e., the generation of things whose source (archē) is in the producer and not in the product." (Such things [poiēta], then, are different from natural things [phusika], which have the source of their generation in themselves, and from necessary things—the objects of sophia—which are ungenerated.) This efficent causality of the maker is an element in a process in which other factors are causally at play: the material (hulē), which gives the maker something to work on and gives the product the solidarity and durability to exist as an artefact in the world; the form (eidos), which is realized in the material and gives the finished product its specific character; and the end (telos) of the making which may be looked on either as the realized form itself or, beyond that, as the use it serves in people's lives.

When the maker is able to bring these causal forces together under his rational direction he may be said to possess the relevant techne.—e.g., to building in the relation to making houses or of cobbling in relation to the making of shoes. Techne is not itself a useful thing but rather a generative source (archē) of useful things, a habitual ability (dunamis) of the maker through which he can reliably produce and reproduce them. (248)

Back to the Rough Ground (1993)

Tiptoeing gingerly around the issues of formal cause (eidios), efficient cause (hothen) and final cause (telos), what strikes me most is Krenov's insistence on "reverence for the life that is in the wood," the material cause (hulê) of woodworking. "Hulê" literally means timber or wood. In the most delicious convergence, Aristotle's terminological choice for discussions of "material cause" is lifted straight from woodworking. Aristotelean material causality doesn't refer to cause as in cause and effect but more fundamentally and arcanely: "what is it made of"?  What this provokes for me is a seemingly innocent question: What would the "wood" [matter] of rhetoric or photography be?

An elegant solution springs to mind in the case of photography: photography is "made of" light. Whether pixels on a screen or dye or silver on paper, light is the hulê (material cause) of photographic images. Light resides in its name, just as "wood" is the first particle in the compound "woodworking." This makes for an interesting distinction between the two: the material of woodworking is (or arguably was) alive; light, obviously, is not.

I remember vividly a student wandering through the gallery at Bakersfield College where I was hanging an exhibition of my infrared bar photographs (Invisible Light) complaining "I just don't hear the music." I was puzzled; music is always alive but I never claimed that my photographs were alive. It seemed to me to be a category mistake: Alive? That's impossible! I just don't think it is productive to look for "life" in a photograph. Photographs may observed in life, but they are not of it. To speak of the "life in a photograph" is speaking outside of the subject. It's been decades since that happened, and thinking through the material of photography clarifies the distinction considerably.

I do not mean to imply that photographs can not be evocative; far from it. It's simply that what photographs can evoke are experiences of durable form residing in reproductions of space or texture. Form, and the spirit contained within it, are more complex. "Life" (as a proposition) is a missing element that must be supplied by the viewer; one cannot fault the photographer (or sculptor) for not animating the inanimate. Even if this were possible, the creation would be a soulless golem.

In rhetorical terms, photographs can be enthymatic, offering propositions of form and space illuminated by light. Only a viewer can supply any proposition of life. As Krenov asserts, wood is different. It grows and shrinks and warps and checks as the cells of its durable form surrender to entropy. Wood is alive, and does not require the intervention of an interpreter to supply life. Intuition, however, comes into play in determining the relationship between material and form and their suitability to purpose. In this, I think there is some parallel to photographic work— understanding the relationship of light to form is a hard won skill.

As this consideration should make clear, knowing the hulê (material cause) of something is necessary but not sufficient to defining the thing itself. Things with a durable physical presence are fairly easy to classify by hulê, but difficulty is encountered when the forms of a technai are compound or complex. In searching for the hulê of rhetoric, Alan Gross proposes that hulê can be classified as being composed of sensible matter, states of sensible matter, or intelligible matter.3 This excessively complicates determining the hulê of rhetoric— which Gross postulates without argument as a compound of intelligible matter, "thoughts and ideas" and sensible matter created by the vocalic apparatus and received by an aural apparatus (32). This conflates the efficient cause (hothen), which seems to me to be the thoughts and ideas of the speaker, with the formal cause (eidios) of their expression in speech to define their hulê.4

With much reflection in the past four days that I've been writing this, I believe that the most fitting hulê for rhetoric is breath. As such, it is indeed a manifestation of life. Without life, there is no persuasion or situation in need of it. As such, it seems natural to me to apply Krenov's dictum and assert that it is desirable to discuss the life that comes from the breath of rhetoric.

These reflection on materials leads me deeper into these three crafts I love. The most exciting development in my thinking is discovering that both rhetoric and photography survive through ventriloquism because both are designed for reproduction. Reproduction is not a necessary state for woodworking, it is purely optional. While some forms of photography are not reproducible (monoprints and daguerreotypes), most are by design. For rhetoric, from rhapsodes to printing it has been by defined by its reproductions.

The light in which we view photographs as objects or on screens is not the same light which fell on the original scene, and the breath which reanimates a book from years or centuries past, or a recorded speech, is not the same breath that left the body of the speaker. But both can offer intimations of life, completed only in the reception of their products. 

In these examples though, only wood contains life.

1see Arthur E. Walzer, "Aristotle on Speaking 'Outside the Subject': The Special Topics and Rhetorical Forums" in Rereading Aristotle's Rhetoric (2000)
Patrick Mayard, Thinking through Photography: The Engine of Visualization (1997)
3Alan Gross, "What Aristotle Meant by Rhetoric in Rereading Aristotle's Rhetoric (2000)
4At some point, this all becomes mind-numbingly complex for a non-classical scholar like me. Gross defines the hothen (efficient cause) of rhetoric as a dunamis and hexis (an ability and habit); he also claims that dunamis and hexis are the psychological processes necessary to understanding a techné, making the definitions invoked essentially circular— it is defined by what it is? Uh, yeah. I fall back on my limited understanding of efficient cause as cause in the cause and effect sense. Having thoughts and ideas causes their expression in rhetoric, which generally takes the form of speech.

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Moral self-education requires of us above all that we erase mistaken representations, reject seemingly obvious postulates, and refuse the familiar recognitions that have become trite through repetition, thanks to our habits of perception. In order to see things, we must first of all look at them as if they had no meaning, as if they were a riddle. (7)

Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (1998, trans. 2001)

Photographic education has, for me, always been synonymous with learning to see, taking notice of those things that other people don't notice. In short, it's learning how to view the world as a riddle waiting to be studied and unraveled. Photography's reward is the pleasure of saying: oh, I see now!  I get it. Such revelations are of a quieter sort than solving a puzzle or riddle; and I don't think that photography's pleasure is equivocal with the assignation of "meaning" to the frame. Perhaps, the pleasure comes from the surrender of/ distance granted from/ fixed meaning. It is the acceptance of a "realm" of metaphoric/poetic thinking that delineates a range of possibilities that must begin apart from the commonplace, although it is always invoked at the risk of becoming the very thing it rejects: just another cliché, a canned mythic meaning with trite conclusions and predictable resolution. 

Ginzburg's choice of terms in picking "moral self-education" as the goal of learning to see is spot on here, I think. Doing the right thing is something that we have to reinvent every day; it is not something that can be performed by rote according to a mysterious code that once mastered becomes second nature. The essay quoted above is the first of his nine reflections: "Making it Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device." At issue from the outset is the problem of novelty; Ginzburg takes two primary, subtly nuanced, examples as his touchstones. First there is the novelty of Tolstoy (connected with Stoic philosophy through Marcus Aurelius) that proposes "to see things 'as they really are' meant to free oneself from false ideas and images" and accept mortality. Ginzburg's second touchstone takes a different route via Proust.

The realm of Tolstoy is dominated by a sort of platonic view of the world as filled with falsehood and deception where there is an unfamiliar and novel "truth" underneath that might be located by finding the "true causal principles" as antidote (18). Proust, on the other hand suggests that the freshness and novelty of things is polluted by "the intrusion of ideas" (18). To find what is novel, it is better to present things "in the order of perception" and still uncontaminated by causal explanations" (18-19). I cannot recall the source at the moment, but one photographer advised that it was best to approach the world "as a sensitized plate" collecting impressions. Taking this advice, it is best to accept surfaces as they are rather than trying to elicit an impression of "true essence" (the driving force behind modernist photography). 

How might this be manifested? It seems to me that it is not novel in the Proustian sense to try to make a photograph of a iron pipe having the weight and strength of the original pipe (revealing an idealized concept of "iron" and its attributes) but it would be in its Stoic (via Tolstoy) sense. Or, alternatively, if it looked like ice cream, a totally unfamiliar presentation of a pipe, it would match up to the drive to defamiliarize present in the Stoics. What does it mean to be novel in the Proustian sense? Ginzburg quotes Proust:

Now Elstir's quest to show things not has he knew they were, but in accordance to the optical illusions that determine how we first see them, had indeed led him to highlight certain of these laws of perspective, which were the more striking at the time because it was art that first revealed them. A river, because of a bend in its course, or a bay, because of the way the cliffs appeared to draw closer together, would seem to hollow out, in the midst of the plain or mountains, a lake completely closed off on all sides. (19)

Ginzburg connects this with ekphrasis, "elaborate attempts to produce verbal descriptions of nonexistent but plausible, pictures" (19). His definition of ekphrasis is the classical literary distortion of the rhetorical exercise (ekphrasis need not be fictional), but it suggests the "placing before the eyes" that is foundational to this rhetorical performance. Novelty, then, for Proust, is secured by viewpoint rather than essence.

The Proustian approach has more appeal to me (as an artist), but the close of Ginzburg's essay claims that the historian should approach things from an opposite stance:

It seems to me that defamiliarization may be a useful antidote to the risk we all run of taking reality (ourselves included) for granted. The antipositivist implications of this remark are obvious. In stressing the cognitive effects of defamiliarization, however, I also want to take the firmest possible stand against those fashionable theories that blur the boundaries between fiction and history with the aim of making the two indistinguishable. Proust himself would have rejected this confusion. When he said that war might be narrated like a novel, he certainly had no intention of praising the historical novel; on the contrary, he wanted to suggest that historians, like novelists (or painters) come together in the pursuit of a cognitive goal. I agree entirely with this point of view. To characterize the historiographical project to which I see myself as contributing, I would use a phrase— slightly altered— that I have just quoted from Proust: "If we are to suppose that history is scientific, we would have to paint it as Elstir painted the sea in reverse. (22-23)

The stricture then, would not be "make it strange" but rather to make it familiar, which seems to coincide with the declared intent of much of the documentary photography of the 1930s. The irony of You Have Seen Their Faces with its exoticized southerners replete with goiters and Bibles is that it is nearly stoic in its emphasis on mortality and unfathomable strangeness. It is historicist only in the loosest possible senses. But in its earnestness, it contributed soundly to the standards of socially concerned documentary. The schism between documents and history, I think, can be productively traced here. The riddle, ultimately, is how to show the unfamiliar as familiar rather than the opposite.

Behind all this lies a core assumption: it is possible to make the familiar novel.

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Snowpocalypse 2010
50+ inches of snow in the last five days, more on the way next week.

Update (12/16): 69 inches total now, on track for the snowiest December in Syracuse history.

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Connie Nielsen and Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.jpeg "According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "snapshot" was first used in 1808 by an English sportsman by the name of Sir Henry Hawker. He noted in his diary that almost every bird he shot that day was taken by snapshot, meaning a hurried shot, taken without deliberate aim. Snapshot, then, was originally a hunting term."1

I had always meant to check this quote. It is basically accurate, except for some minor details. It was Peter Hawker, an English army officer (not sure about the "sir" either). The diary entry was dated 1808, but it wasn't published until 1893, though their are similar usages noted from 1846 as well. Herschel applied "snap-shot" to photography as early as 1860. The comparatively recent deployment of the term makes it dubious to suggest any sort of originary hypotheses or hunting heritage based on Hawker alone. It's easier if you trace down "snap" (sans shot). I love the OED.

Why does this matter? Because terminology always comes with a sort of baggage, a network of associations that persist even though the term is deployed in new contexts. I was reminded of that vividly by a chapter by Carolyn Miller on topos invoking the venatic (hunting) tradition in rhetoric. Photography, it seems to me, has even more direct ties to hunting and its rich tableau of associations. It is facile to simply associate hunting with predatory behavior as Sontag in On Photography, with critics in subsequent decades nodding along without challenge. The venatic tradition is, as Detienne and Vernant suggest, an alternate paradigm that simply does not fit in with the emergent classical world view2. Consequently, hunting doesn't sit comfortably in modern consciousness either. There's a lot more to say about that than I can possibly manage here.

What drove me to explore this again was an interview with Joan Fontcuberta on Eyecurious:

MF: With the proliferation of digital technology, more still photographs are being made than ever before, despite advances in other media like video. Do you think that people would still be as attached to photography if it were no longer perceived as a document of reality?

JF: Yes, certainly. Photography is dissolving into the magma of images. It is losing its historical specificity, but is beginning to fulfil other functions. I just published a book titled Through the Looking Glass about cell phone photos and their circulation through the Internet and online social networks. Teenagers are not interested in photographs as documents but as trophies. When Martians finally invade the Earth, green lizard-shaped aliens will emerge from their spacecrafts. They will fire at us with laser guns but we won’t hide nor protect ourselves. We’ll take our cell phones and we’ll photograph them to prove that we saw them, to prove that we were there when they arrived.

I have difficulty understanding why Fontcuberta thinks that "trophies" are a separate and novel category from documents; photographers have been taking "trophies" since the beginning of the medium. Roger Fenton's Crimean War photographs, for example. They are documents, yes, but they are also trophies of a strange and far away place. The trophies returned to England from Egypt were not simply archeological plunder, but stereo views of places that prove the intrepidness of their publishers. Dissolving into the magma of images? Oh, snap! The onslaught of images began sometime in the middle ages, if not before. I began to wonder about the vocabulary involved: the venatic vocabulary.

Just what is the linguistic relationship between documents, monuments, and hunting?

Snap seems to enter the English lexicon as a verb around 1530 with reference to biting both by animals or humans; a bit later (1586) it is associated with the sound, the snapping of fingers. But by the early 1600s it moves to on a more criminal tack: a snap, also known as a cloyer, is a pickpocket or thief. But there's foreshadowing in the phrasal use of snap up in 1550: "Whan we lyue in ydlenes in all luste and pleasure, the deuyll snappyth vs vp." The nominal use is evidenced prior to this slightly; In 1495 snap designates a bite or bite mark. The predator/prey dynamic is clearly at the core of the term.

In the same time period c.1550, trophy designated both a type of monument erected at a battlefield, and also the spoils of war. Used figuratively, "Anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valour, power, skill, etc.; a monument, memorial." Interestingly, one of the earliest synonyms for "spoils" was prey, in usage c. 1385.3 The prey/monument connection is positively ancient. Famously, Foucault remarked that modernity was engaged in the practice of transforming documents into monuments. It seems that the first monuments were prey or the symbolic representation thereof. It seems impossible to neatly sever the relationship between hunting and memory/memorial. The predatory isn't value added/observed; it's the historical core of the practice. Far from "losing its historical specificity" photography ultimately returns to traditonal social practices.

Of course, this is contingent on granting a sort of "shape-shifter" definition of imaging: images are transformed by technology (i.e., wood-block to metal plate engraving, halftone dots to pixels on a screen) but have a relatively consistent core amid outwardly changing manifestations/deployments. Nonetheless, I am interested Fontcuberta's latest work. I was not able to locate any evidence of the "book" he refers to, but I suspect it's the catalog to this exhibition. The closest bit to the topic he suggests in my prior quotation here:


Mirrors and cameras is a work which describes the panoptic and scopic character of our society : everything is given to an absolute vision and all of us are guided by the pleasure of viewing. With the proliferation of digital cameras and their incorporation into mobile phones a new extremely popular genre of images has turned up, as evidenced in blogs and forums on the net : numerous self-portraits taken by youngsters and teenagers in front of the mirror (in which to close the perceptive circle the camera itself appears as a recording device ). Mirrors in intimate spaces like baths, student rooms , hotels, club toilets and other leisure premises , fitting rooms of clothes shops, car rear-view mirrors , elevators...

In these photos the ludic and selfexploratory character prevails over memory. Self photography and the dissemination of these images through social networks is part of a seduction game and of the rituals of communication of new urban subcultures.

I suspect that Fontcuberta is aware of the fact that his name for the series is appropriated from the well established imaging practice of reflectography, an infrared technique used to locate drawings and other hidden images behind paintings (such images are also called reflectograms). The self portrait, again, is hardly new. But Fontcuberta's emphasis of the "ludic and selfexploratory character" is admirable. Does this negate "memory" though? I suspect not. As people age, they are slow to update their self-image. It has long been a commonplace among participants in social media to use old snapshots (either of themselves, or sometimes of strangers) as icons— particularly baby pictures. Memory is simply redirected, playfully, and not negated. The high seriousness of fixed representation is replaced with a sort of polymorphic shape shifting. This, in the end, is what I find fascinating.

In their quest to uncover the logic/paradigm behind the venatic tradition, Detienne and Vernant focus on metis (cunning intelligence), tracking it through Greek literature like hunters themselves, "in areas which the philosopher usually passes over in silence or mentions only with irony or with hostility so that, by contrast, he can display to its fullest advantage the way of reasoning and understanding required in his own profession" (4). The divisions, promoted by philosophers in couplets: being and becoming, or the intelligible and the sensible, leave little or no room for the functioning of agency or the logic of the hunt.

Metis is characterized precisely by the way it operates by continuously oscillating between two opposite poles. It turns into contraries objects that are not yet defined as stable, circumscribed, mutually exclusive concepts but appear as Powers in a situation of confrontation and which, depending on the outcome of the combat in which they are engaged, find themselves now in one position, as victors, and now in the opposite one, as vanquished [emphasis mine]. These deities, who have the power of binding, have to be constantly on their guard in order not to be bound in their turn.

Thus, when the individual who is endowed with metis, be he god or man, is confronted with a multiple, changing reality whose limitless polymorphic powers render it almost impossible to sieze, he can only dominate it— that is to say enclose it within the limits of a single, unchangeable form within his control— if he proves himself to be more multiple, more polyvalent than his adversary. (5)

The struggle to bind a continually shifting world, to seize it, underwrites the struggle to document and monumentalize the world as evidence of our domination changes its shape but not its intent. In some ways we're still out on the savannah chasing prey.

And like a cat, we often play with our food before consuming it.

1 I would have used the actual clip from the movie, but Fox blocked display of my upload of the 50 seconds I needed to illustrate my lead quote. Frickin' copyright police.

2I cited Miller when I was working on my last RSA paper on Willis J. Abbot and his role in the invention/discovery of Panama in the popular consciousness. Shortly afterward, I dug through to find one of her primary sources on the venatic tradition and its influence on ancient thought, Cunning Intellegence in Greek Culture and Society by Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant. Excellent stuff.

3Amazingly booty is late to the party only entering the lexicon c.1474; booty in its modern, sexualized sense is a very recent development c.1926 "bootylicious" enters the lexicon c.1992.

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Early humans first adapted to nature's acoustic geography: open savannas and mountain ranges. Modern humans adapt, in a weaker way, to the acoustic architecture of urban centers and of enclosed dwellings and gathering places. Both natural and fabricated environments are relatively constant and difficult to change, but by changing their vocalization behavior, those who occupy them adapt, whether as individuals, groups, or species. Every acoustic arena is an application of the principle that social groups select or create an environment, which in turn, determines the resources of their acoustic arena. The vocal behavior of a social group creates an acoustic arena as a geographical region that supports an acoustic community. (27)

. . .

Reverberation gives rise to an interactive experience, with the space entering into an acoustic dialogue with its occupants. It is difficult to enter a reverberant space surreptitiously because the sound of your footsteps produces an acoustic reaction for all to hear. Metaphorically, the reverberated sound of footsteps is the reactive voice of the space; the spatial acoustics of a reverberant space announce the presence of active life by responding with an audible hello, as either a whisper or a shout. (62)

. . .

Although smaller spaces still produce reverberation, as a listening visitor, you experience it as changing the tonal color of the direct sound, not as enveloping you. The acoustic dialogue between you and the space changes, but it remains a dialogue nonetheless. The spatial acoustics of a shower stall may induce you to sing because a small space has numerous discrete resonances. When the pitch and overtones of your voice coincide with these resonances, the intensity of your voice decreases dramatically. Rather than remaining neutral, the space reacts to the presence of some frequencies and not others. Space may thus be said to have tonal preferences. A singer is an aural detective exploring an environment the way a child explores a toy. (63)

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?, Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.

As spaces become smaller, their defining characteristics are not set by their reverberation, but by their resonance. Resonance is a complicated matter; we are comfortable in certain spaces and uncomfortable in others. Comfort is certainly a cultural creation; it has to do with a sense of security and familiarity. Resonance is, by definition, reinforcement of a phenomena (sensually described in most cases). These descriptions nearly always make senses metaphorically overlap: e.g. tone color or anthropomorphized sound as quasi-conscious (the "dialog" example above).

McIntosh corporation has handy personifications typifying tone:


Harmonics are a flexible way of talking about the impure nature of most sounds, but it is much easier to simply dress them up in different clothes and imply a range of personalities (including our smug narrator in the kilt). Reverberation is involved, this time in a much more nuanced fashion because the harmonics of a sound grow/decay/reflect at the different rates.

Blesser and Salter make an interesting move by making space a partner in a dialogue with the beings that occupy it. It makes it easier to visualize even solitary spaces as social. The concept that space has a "preference" for certain types of tones and colors is relatively easy to grant (given the definitions of resonance, harmonics, etc.). But attributing personalities to space and objects within it is curious to say the least. Again, I defer to the little guy in the kilt:


Does music have a "message"? That doesn't jibe well with the idea of the singer as an aural detective. Making sounds can simply be a way of exploring space. The McIntosh brochure is very much a product of its time (1952) with its modeling of aural space as an area where sound travels uninhibitedly without resonance. This is counter-intuitive to say the least. I find such notions of fidelity fascinating.

Listening to a 2008 interview with Roy Harper on the Stormcock podcast yesterday, Harper made some interesting assertions relevant to aural spaces. First, he described culture as a piece of architecture that we all live within, an "edifice" to be exact. Then, he went on to describe culture as "the history of interpretation." This is a useful perspective in my (unrelated) discussion of aural space, because it is obvious that the McIntosh brochure provides a 50s interpretation/valuation of sound which emphasizes the purity of the signal as given. Taking things back a bit historically and culturally, Blesser and Salter seek to interpret/value sound within spaces, experienced as architecture culture: the edifice of culture as it were. Harper suggested, further, that meaning is created between the notes and between the words, of songs—the message isn't something transmitted to a listener, but created by a listener. 

One interpretation of the "between the lines" concept is mystical and metaphysic (by definition, since metaphysic would be beyond the physically present message). But I would prefer to think that what Harper actually means here is that interpretation is the central and uncontrollable aspect of musical communication. We take songs and make meaning from them based on the psychological spaces we have available to them: messages are not pure and constant, but changeable over time. Messages, both musical and linguistic, find meaning through the resonances and harmonics they create within us.

Blesser and Salter provide a different view of the relationship of beings and sound by close comparison: sound/space/perception does not map the same as light/space/perception. We live in a world bathed in light that allows us to locate ourselves within it. Sound comes and goes based on motion and movement through life. The cues that we can use for location are transient, and interpretation of sounds are necessarily cultural and slippery. Not only that, they are profoundly accidental and unconscious. Reliance on "messages" makes understanding sounds quite mystical, particularly if the animated nature of sound is given preference.

Even though space reacts to all sonic events with its characteristic response, nobody from our modern cultures imagines that an enclosed space is actually alive. Using a similar concept, but without realizing that it still applies today, acoustic archeologists speculate that ancient shamans heard cave acoustics as the voice of the cave's spirit. In ancient cultures, objects were animate, containing living spirits. Although, in modern terms, spatial acoustics have replaced animating spirits in describing the aural personality of a space, nevertheless, I prefer to believe that, however subliminally, some sense of spirits animating spaces resides within us even now. (ibid., 63-64)

Taken this way, the detective work of listening is analogous to spirit-catching. I like that idea quite a lot. The catch, however, is that such listening is as much a product of accidental transformation rather than conscious formation/transmission of messages. Spirit resides not in a "pure message" transmitted by an animate being, but rather in the dialog between messages (of animate origin or not) and spaces of/for interpretation.

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Clay, NY
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