Michael D. Jackson: Reflections on Copenhagen


Michael D. Jackson reflects on the how his listening was transformed during a visit by Steven Feld to Copenhagen in 2004. This piece was commissioned in response to Feld’s audio piece: Copenhagen Carillon (also featured in Sensate).


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Reflections on Copenhagen: listening with Steve

When Steve Feld came to Copenhagen in the fall of 2004, I had been in Denmark for five years, teaching anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Essays by Steve, complemented by his 3-CD anthology of Bosavi sounds and songs, helped me show my students the phenomenological inseparability of ideas and images, spoken and written language, intelligibility and sensibility. Unfortunately, it was not possible for my students to accompany Steve on his acoustemological excursions around the city. But I did get to share with them a little of what I learned from observing Steve at work, and how his experiments with intersubjective acoustics realized the radically empiricist anthropology I had described in Paths Toward a Clearing, fifteen years earlier. [1]

One misty morning, I was waiting outside Sankt Johannes church in Nørrebro while Steve, standing under a chestnut tree a few yards away, recorded the stroke of eight followed by the angelus on the church bells, allowing this sound to mingle with the soft clicking of bicycles passing along the street, as well as footsteps and traffic, and the distant chiming of another set of bells across the lakes. As I watched Steve, concentrated on his work and carefully monitoring the tape recorder in his hand, I began to experience this familiar location not through my eyes and skin but through my hearing. The distant bells, for instance, I had never noticed before, nor the subtle interleaving of the sounds of cycles, the cold breeze now stirring, and the pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. Our habitual accounts of the world depend not only on what we see, but on solid and linear geometry, on timetables, graphs, and classificatory diagrams. In a soundscape, however, one was wholly in-between, caught up in the cross-currents, layerings, blurrings and metamorphoses of things that have no fixed definition of their own, but come into being solely within these changing fields of mixed emotions, associations and auditory flows.

This brought to mind how attuned intersubjectivity is to the senses. To emphasise one area of the sensorium – sight over sound, smell over hearing, touch over all – is to subtly alter one’s experience of self and other, something that in different people and different societies is used to both devastating and therapeutic effect. Steve’s inspired sound compositions also brought home to me how surprising juxtapositions can spark off associations, memories and ideas that are neither intrinsic properties of the things or words momentarily combined, nor the personality of the sound engineer. For example, after Steve had finished his recording, we strolled down Sankt Hans street toward the lake, looking for a café where we could buy a coffee before Steve’s lecture. It so happened that this street was where Knut Hamsun lived after returning from the US in the fall of 1888, and where, in a cheap room under the roof at number 18, he began writing Hunger. Hamsun lived on rye bread without butter or cold cuts, and often was without food at all for several days at a time, during which he chewed match sticks to stave off hunger.

Steve’s work satisfies a hunger in many of us to fulfill Merleau-Ponty’s view that the process of “objective analysis to lived experience is perhaps the most proper task of anthropology, the one which distinguishes it from other social science.”[2] Not only does Steve’s work testify to the importance of intersubjectivity as analytical concept and fieldwork ethic; it shows that it is possible for sound writing and sound scholarship to reach audiences beyond the academy.

It is important to be reminded that written texts have to be related, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language, to yield their meanings.[3] Jacques Derrida takes this argument even further, arguing that writing is haunted by a sense of all that lies beyond its margins in the same way that philosophy is inevitably written in the shadows of the nonphilosophical. Derrida uses the image of the tympanum to capture this sense of sound, albeit muffled, that counters the apparent silence of a text, or the reader of a text, and is vital to the intelligibility of the written word.[4]

Despite these claims that literacy never entirely divorces itself from orality, the view is still held, particularly in the academy, that a logical, analytically coherent and thoughtful disquisition on any subject requires the suppression of what Derrida, following Husserl, called “the sensory face of language.”[5] Making experience intelligible requires the subjugation of its sensible properties, including sound. Yet we seem to have reached a moment in the history of the academy when this paradigm is giving ground to a new realism where in depth, detailed, direct recountings of experience are considered to be as illuminating, edifying and thoughtful as the experience-distant jargon extolled by the rationalists of the Enlightenment. Arousing emotion, moving a reader, describing the living context in which one’s thoughts unfold, and using artistic devices – narrative, imagery, idiomatic speech, montage – are valid ways of communicating a point of view, making an argument or revealing a truth. It is becoming acceptable to stir or disturb one’s audience in the same way that music or movies do. Rather than distrusting prose that evokes a slice of life, a lived event or a personal experience, we are learning to distrust forms of discourse in which the assertion of authority requires an autocratic manner. We crave sincerity as much as scholarship, direct testimony as much as indirect speech. The world of thought is being brought back to life. The test of the soundness of philosophy – and by extension, the writing of philosophy – is whether, in the words of John Dewey, it ends “in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make out dealings with them more fruitful … does it yield the enrichment and increase of power of ordinary things.”[6] Steve Feld’s work brilliantly passes this test.

[1]Michael Jackson, Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
[2]Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. R.C. McCleary (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 119.
[3]Ibid, 8. This argument has also been made, eloquently and empirically, by William A. Graham in his study of the vocal and sensual character of scriptural texts, and he cites examples of how scripture is not only written but “recited, read aloud, chanted, sung, quoted in debate, memorized in childhood, meditated upon in murmur and full voice,” its sacrality realized in the life of a vocal community. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), ix, 7-8.
[4]Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984), x-xii
[5]Margins, 161.
[6]John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958), 7. More recently, Pierre Hadot has made a similar case for “philosophy as a way of life” – less a theoretical discourse than a “practice, an askesis, and a transformation of the self.” What is Ancient Philosophy, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 275.

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