My recently completed PhD thesis addresses how sound and listening relate to knowledge production within the field of acoustic archaeology, or archaeoacoustics. In this presentation I will describe the epistemological challenge of the sonic for knowledge in my project, which mobilizes the echo as a feminist and decolonial material-semiotic figuration. I ask to what extent the sonic can – justifiably or not – be considered an “epistemological rupture”, and how the figure of echo might function within this.
It’s my great pleasure to come and speak at this Stuart Hall Foundation event today, having recently completed my PhD viva and following minor corrections, I will be soon closing this chapter of my life which began with the kind support of the SHF. I had the great honour of being the first SHF PhD scholar in 2015-16 at the department of Media & Communication studies at Goldsmiths College, supervised by Prof. Julian Henriques, a trustee of the SHF and family friend of Stuart Hall himself. These gatherings in previous years have always clashed with teaching obligations, so I really am happy to be here today and to meet other SHF scholars and fellows and learn about their research, which in its different ways continues Hall’s important legacy.
I wanted to use the talk today as opportunity to reflect on the work carried out as part of my PhD and tentatively ask in particular how it sits within a larger gesture of Hall’s work, which I will conceive of as measured moves towards what Hall often leaned on French Marxist structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser’s work to term “epistemological breaks” or “epistemological ruptures.” I find it useful to understand Hall’s intellectual biography as one poised on the inescapable tension between a hegemonic knowledge production paradigm and its possible alternatives. As John Akomfrah’s 2013 documentary film The Stuart Hall Project so evocatively depicted, Hall’s intellectual work was inextricable from his politics which were in turn inextricable from his lived experiences as a young Jamaican on a Rhodes scholar to Oxford University in the 1950s and subsequent decades of living as a Black academic and public intellectual in the UK. The complexity of questions of “home” “belonging” “Britishness” and race, the hybridity of postcolonial experiences – exemplifying W.E.B. Du Bois’s term of “double consciousness” in which a Black person in a white society sees themselves “through the eyes of others” and always feels one’s “two-ness” – has not only importance for understanding culture in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain, but also epistemological significances. In my thesis, I chose to use the terms “a hegemonic here” to describe the onto-epistemological paradigm inherited from an all-pervasive Eurocentric, white supremacist, cis – heteronormative- patriarchal, military-industrialist capitalist histories. Against, or rather – within and against – this “hegemonic here” of prevalent Western knowledge paradigms, I posed a “political-philosophical elsewhere” which I understand to be a common project of anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, feminist and anti-capitalistic thought and action for thinkers, writers and activists who also share these aims.
I’ll spend my talk today, then, attempting to explain how my project relates to this larger endeavour which aligns with how Hall conceived of the work of Cultural Studies encapsulated in part by the term “epistemological break”. As Hall describes in re-telling the history of the establishment of Cultural Studies in British academia in the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies in the 1970s, Althusser’s “epistemological rupture” was often used in an absolutist fashion in which the break is imagined as “clean” and distinct, rather than messy and complicated. Whatever ins and outs of Marxist and post-Marxist philosophy had happened in the academic Left in this period, Hall sought to foreground that Althusser’s general argument and approach to only understand terms and concepts in context, not in isolation from their context, as a way to comprehend “‘the problematic’—and in relation to the ‘constitutive unity of effective thoughts that make up the domain of an existing ideological field’ (Hall, 2006, p. 13), or in other formulations “the conjuncture” of a particular historical moment. Grounding investigations within a “conjuncture” was a hugely useful heuristic in my PhD investigation, thus, based within the emerging field of sound studies I’ve chosen to title my talk “a sonic conjuncture”.
To set the scene, I’d like to play an excerpt of an audio recording from my PhD fieldwork. It’s a field recording taken 3000m high up in the Central Peruvian Andes, at a 3000-year-old ceremonial temple complex and archaeological site called Chavín de Huántar. We hear three conch shell horns, known locally as pututu horns being played on the open plain. Four years of PhD research and 100,000 words I wrote in the end – there’s too much to cover in the remaining time but I’ll do my best to explain how my project attempted to probe into what a “sonic conjuncture” might mean, with regards to the project of an “epistemological break” – of the messy and complicated kind, of course.
The field of archaeoacoustics, or acoustic archaeology began with research usually cited as dating back to mid-1980s in France and became a sub-field of archaeology around 2003. Sound, listening and acoustics had long been neglected in archaeological studies of sites, but the field of archaeoacoustics sought to dislodge the dominance of the visual in archaeological knowledge production and opened up archaeology to a multi-sensory approach of which attending to how sound and listening may have played a role in human behaviours of the past was one of a few novel concerns. A small but growing field made up of a handful of researchers, my thesis involved interviews with the field’s main protagonists and participant-observer fieldwork with some key researchers. The clip I just played resulted from a trip supported by the generous participation of Dr Miriam Kolar, who has undertaken extensive archaeoacoustical research at the Andean site.
Whilst the researchers themselves, such as that evident in Dr Kolar’s extremely rigorous high calibre research, are focused on aiding archaeological understanding of a site through acoustic and psychoacoustic tests and investigations, the object of knowledge in my thesis was different to the people I interviewed. A central question in my thesis was: how do sound and listening configure within larger questions of epistemology and academic knowledge production? If Western modernity has been multiply named (and implicitly shamed) as ocular- or visuocentric, that is to say, dominated by vision, then what of sound?
Is sound and the sonic a challenge to traditional Eurocentric epistemologies? And if so, in what way?
What I’m calling for the purposes of the talk today – a sonic conjuncture – is not intended to replicate the overblown absolutist ideas of an epistemological break from the past and Eurocentric epistemological histories; none of us are “innocent” of being shaped by these dominant and deeply embedded ideas – as Patricia Hill Collins’ work in Black feminist epistemology has demonstrated the exclusion of Black women’s ideas and scholarship has perpetuated the further elevation of elite White male ideas, and disconcertingly White feminisms have all too often done little to dismantle this (Hill Collins, 2000). These structural oppressions make up the intellectual and conceptual and material “bricks” which are stuck firmly together to make institutional walls or barriers to ideas and persons who challenge this, as Sara Ahmed’s concisely chosen metaphor helps us articulate (Ahmed, 2017). Rather, as sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne proposes, what the sonic does provide, however, is a different map to the territory (Sterne, 2003, p. 15). A sonic conjuncture, therefore, overlays onto a particular historical moment and convergence of people, things, ideas, institutions, but opens itself with curiosity to how matters of sound and listening might implicate our understanding of this moment.
As Kolar’s work, along with colleagues at the Stanford University project has helped to uncover, the site of Chavín de Huántar does have some impressive and overwhelming evidence for significant sonic behaviours taking place at the site over its 3000 year history. At least twenty intact and highly decorated conch shell horns, known locally as pututus, have been found at the site; these were transported over thousands of miles from the coast off modern-day Ecuador; engravings at the site depict anthropomorphic figures holding and blowing into these horns, suggesting beyond dispute their sonic (or music) use during ceremonies; in addition, Kolar’s detailed acoustical work has demonstrated that the complex network of built internal spaces within the mountain-top site aids the sonic transmission of the frequencies produced by the pututu horns. Sound and these horns, was by no means the only significant element of archaeological investigation of the site, but it is fair to say there is substantial evidence for it playing some substantial role in the cultures and peoples who built and used the site.
The site and its archaeology, are fascinating, undoubtedly. However, for my PhD investigation, focused on the epistemological questions provoked by sound and listening, the site of Chavín offered a particularly rich set of circumstances from which to theorize from. It was important to conceptualize knowledge production at and of Chavín thoroughly in my thesis, situating myself as a researcher, as well as situating the knowledges produced by researchers there historically from the battles between a European influenced establishment of Peruvian archaeology and its positivist epistemological models, and the Indigenous archaeology which countered some of its pervasive and false narratives about the cultural and intellectual sophistication of the Indigenous people historically in Peru. The epistemological ramifications of colonialism are multi-faceted. Yet, nevertheless, it was central to articulate that at the time Chavín was built and was active as a ceremonial temple complex by its builders, this was a pre-colonial time; before the inception of Western colonizers and merchants who enforced their cultural, political, social and economic models such as capitalism, white/European ethnocentric superiority and heteronormativity based on a dimorphic sexual difference (Lugones, 2007, 2010). Chavín existed in a conjuncture before this had become established, which is not to suggest that certain forms of what we might recognize as patriarchy did not exist, rather, it did not exist in the form which has become so prevalent since Western domination beginning from the various waves of colonialism since the 1500s and the concurrent onset of the modern period.
This outside of the “hegemonic here”, as I referred to it earlier, seems to begin to be – at least partially – conceivable in a place like Chavín. A provocative idea guides us: could it be considered a political-philosophical elsewhere, an outside (an epistemological break?) which offers an alternative mode of knowledge production, perhaps one which is not constrained by the same oppressive modes and models of modern Eurocentric patriarchal capitalist- extractivist histories? This is a question I probe and pose in my thesis. Not in order to assume any kind of clean rupture from the hegemonic here, as Hall was clear to emphasize, but rather to conceive of the potential of an alternative way of thinking and doing whilst all the time acknowledging the epistemological limitations within which this endeavour is necessary implicated and embedded within.
This is a recording made at Chavín of me clapping facing the staircases. This is a well- researched phenomenon at the pyramids of Chichén Itza in Yucatan, Mexico where this chirping sound is known to emanate from the staircases and has been theorized in archaeoacoustics to be symbolic of the Quetzal bird, a significant creature in Mayan mythology. A similar phenomenon can be observed at Chavín, although nobody as yet has undertaken any formal investigation as to whether this sonic phenomenon was of potential use or significance to Chavín’s builders.
In closing, I’ll turn to the figure of echo which was fundamental in my PhD research. I conceived of echo as a feminist and decolonial figuration which is both material and semiotic. This conceptualisation leaned heavily on feminist science scholar Donna Haraway’s famous conception of the cyborg (Haraway, 1991). A cyborgian echo, not so much in its high-tech incarnation, but rathermore in its characterisation as a material-semiotic figure, is a usefully flexible tool for understanding echo. It understands, that an echo in its contemporary definition has been formed by a scientific-acoustic model of sonic matter which is reflected to the hearer; this is its dominant material-semiotic meaning. Other commonly understood meanings can be found in the Ancient Greek myths of echo which are still well known, in which Echo is a nymph who for various reasons has been cursed to only repeat the words of others on mountaintops or other scenes of nature. My conceptualisation leans instead on Gayatri Spivak’s, who read Echo as a devious and defiant figure of différance (in a Derridean sense of deferral and difference) (Spivak, 1993). A shifting figure of the boundaries, which exudes hybridity and inbetweenness and never settles on a single fixed origin or identity. This material-semiotic figuration of echo, which I imbue with feminist and decolonial theoretical meaning in my thesis, addresses the sonic conjuncture of archaeoacoustics. This figure of echo might just offer, perhaps not “a” or “the” big epistemological break, but in the spirit of Hall’s work, help push towards the hybridity made of the multiple, minute and larger, epistemological breakages from the hegemonic epistemological modes of the modern and post-modern West that we still very much need to pursue. In Hall’s words on Cultural studies, “where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes…[these] breaks are worth recording” (Hall, 1980, p. 57). A sonic conjuncture, in my project, was an attempt to understand how sound and listening help to figure and reconfigure knowledge paradigms of the present.
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Haraway, D. J. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149–182). Routledge.
Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.
Lugones, M. (2007). Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System. Hypatia, 22(1), 186–209.
Lugones, M. (2010). Toward a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia, 25(4), 742–759.
Spivak, G. C. (1993). Echo. New Literary History, 24(1), 17–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/469267 Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Duke University Press.