in conversation with Salomé Voegelin
Salomé Voegelin is a prominent figure in the field of sound studies and sonic art. Her work delves into the multifaceted dimensions of sound, encompassing sound art, acoustics, and the philosophy of sound. Voegelin's writings and lectures explore the intricate relationship between sound and space, challenging traditional notions of listening and inviting audiences to engage with sound in novel ways.
In the following conversation, we discussed possibilities for a sound-oriented ontology.
LM: Salomé, as a philosopher of sound, how would you define sound from both a philosophical and artistic perspective?
SV: Sound, as it's defined in physics, refers to the transmission of energy through a medium in the form of waves. However, when considered via philosophy and art, this definition isn’t that useful. From my perspective, sound represents more than just waves, and neither is it simply the sound of something. Instead, it serves as a gateway to an invisible dimension. It is a sensorial material through which we can see the world differently. In that sense, it stands not in opposition to the visual, but is a means to see more, allowing us to critique and challenge visual norms and expectations that determine a singular reality, and come to see its plural possibility.
I experience sound as a portal into what I call „sonic possible worlds“: the plural slices of the actual world, through which other things become visible and sensible as in accessible by the senses, and therefore thinkable as real.
We are, particularly in the West, in Europe and the US, focused on a visual understanding of the world. We are entrained in a visual literacy, generating a visual knowledge, that has become normative and hegemonic.
Sound can cause us to just slightly turn our heads, to slightly shift perception and view point, so that we can at least start to think that the world could be different and plural.
So for me sound is a tool to re-orientate ourselves, or at least to try and imagine different orientations; and come to see the blind spots that frame a normative view.
LM: In your book, "Listening to Noise and Silence," you argue that our culture's heavy reliance on sight organizes and hierarchizes perceptions and thus the way we produce knowledge. How might a shift in focus from sight to hearing open up transformative possibilities, particularly in hierarchical ways or organizing knowledge such as taxonomy?
SV: I can only ever speak from a European perspective and entrainment. However, I do believe that we could use our eyes in different ways. Our current cultural and scientific paradigms are deeply entrenched in a cultural visuality that is rooted in European Enlightenment thinking, which pursues the idea of progress through the ideal of objectivity, measurability and categorization so we can taxonomise and thus know and capture the world. This describes visual knowledge, as a knowledge gained from a distance, enabling order and ordering, as the primary means of comprehension and ultimately control.
However, this visual knowledge paradigm is not without limitations and even violence. Its categories objectify, and from there it establishes hierarchies privileging certain perspectives while marginalizing others. It leads to a biased and exclusionary understanding of the world, where in order to keep dominance, historical and cartographic lines are drawn and violent exclusions practiced.
As a woman, even as a white European woman, I sense how I do not quite coincide with this visually ordered world. I draw a different gaze and I see a different vista that does not include me.
That position of 'not quite coinciding' with what appears and is sold as a the only reality possible, describes exclusions and violence, epistemic and political, but it also means that there must be something else to be seen, other ways for the world to be. That's where my critique and venture into sonic possibility finds its motivation.
How can we formulate a position other than this visual regime which through a Western, colonial modernity has naturalized and hegemonized the norms that carry the violence of an exclusionary epistemology and design?
This is not just an issue of diversity and inclusvity of bodies and cultures. Instead, in the context of the pressing and interdependent emergencies of climate and public health, scarcity of resources, etc. the pursuit of a singular knowledge path needs re-visioning. It doesn't serve us to stick to taxonomical lines and singular knowledge legitimacies that ignore the world’s interdependency. Instead, I believe we need to think from the invisible, the in-between and accepting of our codependence, to comprehend and work on the urgent issues facing us in their relationality.
Sound can deliver this paradigm shift. It can be the portal and access point to the multisensory, to admit a material and embodied knowledge that can rethink the design of the world from its correlation; that can enable new thinking and bring other bodies, competencies and solutions to the table of knowledge so we might face the crises we are in not on separate and singular paths but through interdisiplinary and solidarious practices.