in conversation with Tim Ingold
Tim Ingold is a renowned British anthropologist and scholar known for his influential work in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. His influential books include "The Perception of the Environment" (2000), "Lines: A Brief History" (2007), and "Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description" (2011). These works have had a profound impact on the fields of anthropology and environmental studies, encouraging scholars to rethink their approaches to understanding the human-environment relationship.
In the following conversation we discussed the perception of the environment through sound.
LM: Hi Tim, great to talk to you! To begin with, how would you define the term "sound“?
TI: This sounds like a simple question, but it's not! Let me first of all say what sound isn't for me. It's not the same as mechanical vibrations in a medium. When physicists talk about sound, they mean some sort of energetic transmission in the form of longitudinal waves, conducted through a medium, usually air. But that’s not what sound is for me. I’m interested in sound as something we actually experience, and we don't experience it as energetic waves! But at the same time, neither do I want to think of sound as a purely psychological phenomenon. Some will say that sound is just a physical phenomenon, and others that it is just in your head. But for me, sound is neither of those things. It is neither physical nor psychological, but atmospheric. By atmospheric, I mean the mixing and mingling of the field of our conscious awareness with the cosmic milieu. We experience sound precisely because the boundary between mind and world actually dissolves in the very process of our hearing. To get at this, we need a phenomenological approach to sound, rather than one from physics or psychology.
LM: With that perspective in mind, how do you believe the study of sound can contribute to our understanding of ecology?
TI: Well, the investigation of sound offers a pathway to reconsidering the very concept of ecology. In the traditional view, stated in many textbooks, ecology is defined as the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments. This definition assumes, a priori, that organisms are distinct, self-contained and externally bounded entities. But the study of sound – and even of light, which presents similar challenges – leads us to question this presumption.
We cannot treat sound either as solely belonging to the environment, or as an intrinsic property of the organism, because it arises only when organism and environment merge. This merging leads me to favor the concept of the "milieu" over that of “environment”. "Milieu" literally means a middle place; thus, inhabiting the milieu is like swimming together in the midstream of a river current. It's as much a part of us as it is between us. Sound, along with light and other sensory phenomena, challenges us to construct a different kind of ecology – an ecology of the milieu.
In this alternative view, ecology is no longer about the relationships between organisms on one side and their external environments on the other. Instead, it's about understanding how living beings continually interpenetrate one another. I've elaborated on this idea in relation to lines – considering every organism as a line, or as a bundle of lines, and examining how these lines tangle with one another. The remarkable thing about this perspective is that it erases the distinction between insides and outsides, leaving us instead with a complex mesh. I believe this approach works quite well when we contemplate sound and light as phenomena of the milieu.