Sound studies without auditory culture: a critique of the ontological turn

Kane ( Brian Kane )
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Sound Studies, United States 
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‘Sound studies’ and ‘auditory culture’ are terms often used synonymously to designate a broad, heterogeneous, interdisciplinary field of inquiry. Yet a potential disjunction between these terms remains. Some scholars within sound studies, by turning to the ontology of sound and to the material–affective processes that lie ‘beneath representation and signification’, reject auditory cultural studies. In this essay, I consider the ‘ontological turn’ in sound studies in the work of three authors (Steve Goodman, Christoph Cox, and Greg Hainge) and offer a few arguments against it. First, I describe the Deleuzian metaphysical framework shared by all three authors, before addressing their particular arguments. Then, I consider Goodman’s vibrational ontology. While Goodman claims to overcome dualism, I argue that his theory is more rigidly dualist – and poorer at explaining the relation of cognition to affect – than the cultural and representational accounts he rejects. Next, Cox and Hainge’s aesthetic theories are considered. Both are proponents of onto-aesthetics, the belief that works of arts can disclose their ontology. I argue that onto-aesthetics rests on a category mistake, confusing embodiment with exemplification. Because of the confusion, Cox and Hainge slip culturally grounded analogies into their supposedly culture-free analyses of artworks. Finally, I reflect on the notion of an ‘auditory culture’, and suggest the ‘ontological turn’ in sound studies is actually a form of‘ontography’– a description of the ontological commitments and beliefs of particular subjects or communities – one that neglects the constitutive role of auditory culture at its peril. 
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