Review of Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (Continuum, 2010). PopMatters (12 October, 2010).
Two of the problems encountered when dealing with space are knowing where to start and where to finish. How do we begin to delineate space? How do we bound it? As numerous philosophers and cultural geographers have found, spatial nominalization and delimitation, the naming and taming of space, are more geared towards describing place and places. Where places have names and seemingly fixed borders, space is blurred and unknowable. Even so, it is always thinkable, always a condition of our being in the world.
As we move through space or reflect on it, there remains a constant desire to divide it into other spaces. The French writer Georges Perec caught this desire briefly and beautifully in his essay “Species of Spaces”, gradually zooming out from the space of the page on which he was writing (and his readers reading) to the desk, the room, the house, and so on until he imagined himself floating in space, looking back at Earth. All the time, of course, the writer never really left the scene of writing, nor the reader the scene of reading.
Many French writers and thinkers are mentioned in Brandon LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories, though Perec is not among them. LaBelle seems in thrall to a similar taxonomy of space, however, as he organizes his book via chapters entitled “Underground”, “Home”, “Sidewalk”, “Street”, “Shopping Mall”, and “Sky”. Given the spatial range and the number of real and imagined sites visited, it’s difficult to describe all the trajectories this book wishes to examine or set in motion. Essentially, though, LaBelle is concerned with the interrelation of a variety of sonic spaces and with the ways in which sound is not merely something that occupies space, but rather one of the main ways in which space is constituted and, in turn, constitutes its occupants.
Numerous theorists of space populate the corridors, freeways, and occasional labyrinths of LaBelle’s pages: Henri Lefebvre with his ideas on everyday life, rhythmanalysis, and the production of space; Michel de Certeau on everyday life and walking in the city; Gaston Bachelard and his poetics of space; the Situationist International and its notions of psychogeography and the détournement of public space. This population of LaBelle’s text with so many names and ideas is both a pleasure and a frustration. For a theoryhead, it is fascinating to follow the connections LaBelle makes and to perhaps add their own. Those less inclined to such speculative explorations may well be annoyed with this work.
Acoustic Territories is not a book about music as such, though there are passing mentions of Brian Eno’s ambient music and Erik Satie’s “furniture music”, and interesting musical juxtapositions, such as a comparison between the contemporaneous work of experimental composer Pierre Schaefer and bandleader Ray Conniff in the 1950s. Rather, this is a book about sound, noise, and the acoustic.
LaBelle’s tour takes us from the resonant tunnels of the subway, with its buskers and subterranean echoes, up to the noises of the city street, and out to the sonic politics of the suburbs where neighbors bicker about noise levels and sound refuses to be domesticated. LaBelle also takes us into the soundspace of the car and to the Muzak-filled non-places of the shopping mall and airport. Here, as in Joseph Lanza’s book Elevator Music, the focus is on the use of sound to modulate mood and stimulate particular modes of behavior. The “Sky” chapter, meanwhile, sets its sights on the transmission of sound through airwaves and networks, with the concomitant intermingling of local and global spaces.
It’s often difficult to get a handle on LaBelle’s text. This is not so much due to the theories that the author draws upon as it is his occasional inability to communicate them and his tendency to follow connections to almost breaking point. The connection between underground railway systems and underground music scenes, for example, just about holds together but it is mainly due to fancy linguistic play that further complicates some already rather convoluted points.
LaBelle certainly doesn’t have the communicative ease that David Toop, for example, has brought to his ruminations on noise and silence in his books Haunted Weather and Sinister Resonance, nor does his prose have the readability or quotability of Certeau. LaBelle shares the complexity of many of the poststructuralist authors whose theories he draws upon while lacking their poetic flare.
Chapter 2, entitled “Home”, is a case in point. It’s very difficult to follow the connections between domestic space as imagined so eloquently by Gaston Bachelard, the use of silence to discipline prisoners (Michel Foucault is brought in to help here), and the danger of noise as theorized by Michel Serres. The difficulty is compounded, here and through much of the book, by certain over-used rhetorical tics and occasionally dubious word grammar. That said, LaBelle just about pulls it off and manages, at the end of the chapter, to draw a number of strands together to make a compelling argument about acoustic violence and the ethics of noise.
Chapter 3 provides a smoother read, perhaps due to this part of the book having already been through the editorial mill in preparation for a previous publication. Or perhaps it’s due to a gradual acclimatization to the author’s style such that one allows oneself to be territorialized, or interpellated, or becalmed, or whatever, by the somewhat condensed style. There may be a case of recognizing one’s own weakness here, for I write as someone whose own theoretical work has been labeled as condensed and abstract and who, like LaBelle, has a tendency to back up personal, phenomenological observation with an enormous cast of over-quoted theorists. Perhaps it just takes one to know one.
Yet I also write as someone who, reading this book in the middle of a sleepless night while torrential rain splashed against the roof and windows and dripped an uncanny cacophony onto an upturned bucket in the garden outside, felt that its author was on to something very important. One of the most important things that Acoustic Territories insists upon is that, far from being merely something that takes place in, occupies, or evokes space, sound is inherently spatial and determines to an often unacknowledged extent our very sense of locatedness. Sound and sense become indistinguishable.
If LaBelle has not been completely successful at taking the reader with him as he zooms in and out of his species of spaces, it is quite probable that a smooth negotiation of these sites is neither possible nor desirable. The agonism performed by this rather strangulated text is perhaps indicative of the difficulties of bounding space. The fantasy of a smooth drift between coterminous sites or the possibility to switch from one site to another at the speed of thought (or at least the speed of telecommunication) remains, for now, the realm of cyberfiction.
The difficulty of dealing with space is reinforced at the end of the book when it closes seemingly midway through an argument and, against established scholarly practice, with a quotation. It is as if there is no way to conclude a discussion of space, no possibility to box or bound it. We can only provisionally pin it down, take a reading or sounding, and move on.