What are the sounds of the Anthropocene, and what does it mean to sense the Anthropocene through sound? This issue of Sensate Journal brings together work by scholars and artists that explores how listening in and to and with the Anthropocene might afford distinct modes of attunement to a rapidly changing climate. Listening is always listening with – with other people and other species, with a body beyond the ear, and with senses other than the auditory. It is fundamentally relational, orienting people toward each other and beyond, toward more than human entanglements. Listening does not end at the ear, but extends to a body sensing vibrations also while involving senses of vision, touch, thermoception, and proprioception. Sound, thus, provides a locus for exploring how sensory dimensions of climate change come into perceptibility, proliferating into numerous sites and modalities of inquiry. The breadth of approaches and concerns in these pieces suggests the expansiveness of sound and listening, with much still to be explored. They play with ways of working with and presenting sound, inviting readers to listen with Mongolian pastoralists, a snapping turtle, climate scientists, whales, and residents of northeast Brazil; to hear the acoustic space of the underground or reclaimed oil sands; and to cultivate techniques for listening with a changing atmosphere.
Many who address these concerns attend to sound as signifying a changing climate, recording birdsong, insects, and melting glaciers to hear the transformation of natural soundscapes in the face of climate change. One of the concerns of this issue is to not use a methodology of listening to unwittingly deepen the human-nature divide. Listening to birdsong is also listening with birds and other species, while the isolation – of a particular bird’s song or of its quality – rendered through field recordings is a mode of focused attention by an assemblage of ear and microphone.
Others deploy auscultatory listening to take the pulse of the climate, using sound as data to generate a sonic index of climate change. Listening with and through audio technology is also an entry into how climate scientists listen; in Helmreich’s contribution, we learn how marine scientists use hydrophones to listen to the acoustic signatures of breaking ocean waves, the sound of their bubbles a sign of climate-changed sea states. Such expert listening resonates with oil and gas companies’ use of geophones to sound out the composition of underground depths, the crevices and fissures where gas might be found made audible. This is a technological mode of listening that gets to the core of the Anthropocene – the extraction of fossil fuels that end up as CO2 in the atmosphere, altering the earth’s climate. Smallwood (this issue) helps us to listen to and with a reclaimed portion of an oil sands area; remade as a space for human recreation in nature, sounds of wind and grass and birdsong punctuated by trucks traveling to a still active extraction site. Ballestero and Flores take us into cavernous and infrastructural underground spaces, to trouble the presumptions of mysterious darkness and dwell in the resonant qualities suggestive of the inaccessibility of the underground to human experience. They invite us to join the journey of learning how to listen to the subsurface. Moreover, in emphasizing acoustic space, they shift from a project of capturing sounds as artifacts, instead treating sound as immanent in and through the matter of rock, air, and ear. Their video draws the reader/listener into the experience of listening underground, even as it reconsiders the documentary tendencies of recording technology.
The Anthropocene provides a way of accounting for the deep and diverse entanglements that constitute life on earth. While the term foregrounds the consequences of human activity, in drawing the human into the geologic it offers the possibility of moving away from an anthropocentric perspective. We use it here as an opening for troubling human/nonhuman encounters, attending to sensory dimensions of the elemental and geologic as a way of destabilizing human exceptionalism. At the same time, we acknowledge the ways in which the Anthropocene flattens a highly unequal process. Climate change – a stark dimension of the Anthropocene writ large – disproportionately affects people who did little to contribute to it. Such inequity plays out in and through sound in profound ways. In northeastern Brazil, a mutual formation of music and environment in the face of drought reflects ways in which those who are radically excluded is sounded (Silvers, this issue). In rural Mongolia, sounds and soundscapes that help pastoralists evaluate, communicate, organize, and mobilize are overwhelmed by new trade networks; and while these may improve economic opportunities for urban Mongolians and their Chinese and Russian neighbors, they also diminish the effectiveness of herders’ sustainable grassland management, contributing to land degradation and the loss of lifeways (Post, this issue).
Listening offers a sensorial, embodied means of approaching complex entanglements between forms of matter, and their shifting configurations in a changing climate. How might we attune toward a future of radical environmental change and its effect on human and nonhuman bodies? Daughtry has elsewhere written about how desert sandstorms become audible in the congested voice of someone whose lungs are filled with dust, the voice a register of the inextricable intercalation of bodies and air. Becoming audibly strange to ourselves yields questions about how we might listen – as humans with limited auditory capabilities – in a way that yields to the fundamental differences of other species, whether butterfly or snapping turtle or whale (Daughtry and Ritts, this issue). Whale listening draws us into a more than human relationship between cetaceans and ice, both central figures in a changing anthropogenic arctic. Listening also requires submitting to temporalities of the sonic – of that which is making sound, and that which is silenced. Following a number of whale strandings, the US Navy’s use of SONAR is under legal pressure as Kanaka-Maoli groups on Hawai’i argue that it interferes with culturally necessary (and constitutionally protected) relations with palaoa, or marine mammals as family kin (Wiebe, this issue). These are just some of the contradictions, entanglements, and limits that emerge in and through sound. As Covid-19 has taught us, a silencing of anthropogenic sound makes nature newly audible even as carbon emissions continue unabated.
As a generalized process whose temporal horizon reaches beyond the everyday into the generational and geologic, climate change writ large tends to escape human experience, its presence made palpable through rising heat or cataclysmic storms. Thus, listening to climate change – attuning to sounds of the Anthropocene – entails tuning in to that which is generally filtered, to the background hum of fossil fuels and their far flung consequences. The pieces in this special issue draw out moments in which climate change comes into audibility. Yet listening yields to the limits of human perception, now caught up in a future already in motion. What does it mean to sense a process beyond human temporality, to listen on the scale of the geologic? Perhaps if we can attune toward the listening of whales whose inner ears are long fossilized, we might also strain to listen to a future yet unknown.
The pieces in this collection were developed for the Music and Sound Interest Group (MSIG) “soundtable” at the 2019 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC. A goal of the panel was to bring more sound into the conference, doing work with sound as much as with words. We are pleased to join a growing number of special issues and other writings on the topic of sound and the Anthropocene.
Image: Dario Robleto, American Seabed, 2014
Issue image: Inside a cooling tower at Gavin Power Plant, Cheshire, Ohio