Toward A Rupture in the Sensus Communis: On Sound Studies and the Politics of Knowledge Production

Kheshti, Roshanak

In Christine Sun Kim, a film by Todd Selby, we follow the performance artist from her apartment to a busy street corner in New York’s Chinatown where she records a soundscape, jots down some notes and ruminates on the project to which the film gives us a behind-the-scenes view. Cut to a scene of loud rustling and various shimmering and colorfully dusty materials dancing on a speaker cone as Kim blows into a microphone dialed up to full volume. The spectator watches and listens from the sidelines of her studio as Kim experiments with the audio recordings she (presumably) made earlier, channeling them to numerous speakers that have various materials taped to or placed on their cones, vibrating wildly, animating sound anew. Kim’s aesthetic practice employs the methodology of translation as a medium of sonic transduction. So while hearing members of her audience may experience deafening noise transduced into physical, colorful, visual form, deaf members of her audience synesthetically see noise; it is this multilingual, synesthetic effect that results in various sensory experiences by differently situated audiences.

Back in her art studio Kim signs an origin story (that I, a non-speaker of sign language, must read subtitles to follow) in which she recalls a coming-into-consciousness about sound by way of a disciplinary apparatus that forced upon her the sense that she was not an “owner” of proper sound. Interestingly, Kim does not lay the blame for this on her parents, since as immigrants they were also newcomers to linguistic sound in America. Instead, narrating a story in which she not only absorbed her parents’ linguistic alienation but additionally felt alienated from them because of her deafness, Kim carefully points out a larger structuring logic, signing: “There were all these conventions for what was proper sound. . . .I learned to be respectful of their sound.” Kim describes not only linguistic alienation experienced as a child of immigrants whose first language was Korean but also a linguistic alienation vis-à-vis her deafness. Kim’s coming-of-age story narrates the hereditary transfer of a disciplinary apparatus which shushed and glared at her parents’ racial noise on its way to chiding her racialized deaf noise.

Kim’s insightful narrative reflection upon the structuring ideologic of proper sonic decorum for not only a deaf child but her immigrant parents is a jumping off point for exploring the problem of theorizing sound in sound studies and the function of what Kant called the sensus communis. Employing Ranjana Khanna’s reading of the modern sensus communis “as common sense and sense of community” (2009, 111), I attempt here to understand how sound studies facilitates, factors and chronicles sound’s entrance into a “common sense” as well as how it creates a “sense of community” through what qualifies and gets quantified in the taxonomy of sound. Just to be clear, this is not an appeal for a cultural relativism with regard to what matters as sound; on the contrary, it is an appeal for a political recalibration of sound studies’ desire in knowledge production. As I will argue, pushing beyond the limits of the sensus communis—which is what I interpret Kim’s performance art to be attempting to do—requires a sensitivity to what critical autism studies scholar Damian Milton refers to as “divergences of perception,” which I will argue the sound studies scholar has an ethical obligation to be not only attentive to but to cultivate an epistemological and ontological relation toward. Put differently, I examine in this essay the degree to which making various sounds and listening(s) a part of the sensus communis isn’t also a disciplining of those very things. I probe the politics of the sensus communis as an ethical imperative that pertains to how we sense, what we sense, who constitutes the we who sense and what the various means are by which we attest to the value of that sensing as scholars of sound. What I want to develop further in this article is the connection between the politics of knowledge production in sound studies research, the methods employed to perform research, and the outcomes of that research.


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October 22, 2018