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Steven Feld’s paper, “Acoustemologies as Relational Ontologies,” placed at its center a musical collaboration Feld had done in 2006-08 with Ghanaian multi-instrumentalist Nii Otoo Annan, entitled Bufo Variations, a composition that brought dialogic ethnomusicology (in which the anthropologist collaborates musically or sonically with interlocutors) into juxtaposition with multispecies ethnography (Annan and Feld worked with sounds made by Bufo regularis toads in Accra): http://www.voxlox.net/node/62
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall provided commentary at The Elusive session on October 22nd. As part of his presentation, he played one of his own musical compositions, entitled “Taximan.” The playback was interpreted through SEI sign language representing the beats, sounds, and evocations of Marshall’s music:
For anyone not present at Hillel Schwartz’s talk at The Elusive session on October 22nd, a PDF of his “Octahedral Audibles” chart — to which he invites us to add, subtract, multiply — can be found here.
Hillel Schwartz, in his October 22 paper about sounds ineffable and inexpressible in the church of Atotinilco in Mexico, playfully asked us to imagine “a taxonomy of sounds all around but not quite there.” He suggested that we think about listening “octophonically” — to sounds elusive, elusory, obscure, esoteric, delusive, allusive, aporic, and fantastic — and, to help us with this task, offered a chart printed out on “a sheet meant to be folded into a 3-orthoplex cross polytope.” Folding the sheet into an octahedron — as in fact one audience member did, gifting the result to Schwartz — would put these eight categories into tighter adjacency than the 2D chart. The baroque character of the representation called attention to the epistemological origami sometimes needed to render representable that which is considered as operating just beyond apprehension. Simultaneously a parody of the simple attempt to count senses (see post of September 17) as well as a serious demonstration of the power of words actually to reach the putatively inexpressible, the chart should make scholars in sound studies think newly about what they hear and do not hear.
One tendency in the anthropology of the senses writ large has been the attempt to fashion new vocabularies or taxonomies for sensory experience. Some such attempts have sought to account for novel genres of sensing — and account in both senses of the term: to narrate and also, sometimes quite literally, to count senses. One of the pitfalls of such accounting on the narrative side can be the trap of telling stories about fully closed and coherent cultures possessed of sensorial categories untranslatable into others (the sort of hypostatized view of “culture” that such anthropologists as Lila Abu-Lughod have warned against). On the quantitative side, there arises the vexed question of what it means to count senses — to posit five, six, or even N senses — and of whether counting actually does more than simply reify the very category of sense. David Howes’s September 17 paper for “Sensing the Unseen,” “How Many Senses Are There?” called attention to the social and historical particularity of enumerating senses, giving us some useful history of the coming-into-being of the notion of five senses (complementing such studies as Connor, Steven. 2005. “The Menagerie of the Senses.” Lecture delivered at the sixth Synapsis conference, I cinque sensi (per tacer del sesto), Bertinoro, Italy, 1 September. www.bbk.ac.uk/english/skc/menagerie/). In his talk, Howes reported that recent biomedical research has forwarded the possibility that there may exist some 36 distinct sensory modes. What to make of a claim such as this? Certainly one must not take this figure at face value; it assumes, to begin, that “sense” is a general category. The question should rather be: why count? Howes spoke eloquently against the “natural history of the senses” model in his talk, suggesting that any scientific claim about senses and their number must be embedded in a cultural framing of what “senses” are taken to be in the first place.