- Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity by Anahid Kassabian
Anahid Kassabian’s latest book represents an important and original contribution to discourses on sound and listening that will undoubtedly resonate across a wide range of disciplines and fields of study. The result of more than a decade’s research, this publication persuasively advocates for a thorough reconsideration of how scholarship deals with listening, specifically the kinds of listening that are occasioned ubiquitously in everyday life. Through examining a disparate selection of cultural phenomena (recent technologies, video art, films, musical episodes of TV series, Armenian jazz, coffee shop music), Kassabian productively upsets many presumptions scholars routinely make when discussing and analysing certain acoustic experiences, such as the levels or degrees of attention paid to the sound-object, and suggests new ways of theorising and engaging with them. Central to this objective is a conception of distributed subjectivity that she formulates as being significantly informed and negotiated by affective responses to ubiquitous musics. In other words, ‘the production of affective responses to ubiquitous musics, through a range of partially attentive listenings, is how distributed subjectivities come into being’ (xxiv).
Modelled on Mark Weiser’s idea of ‘ubiquitous computing’, Kassabian’s ‘ubiquitous listening’ refers to musics embedded in aspects of everyday life: objects, experiences, and places. The introduction and first chapter offer many examples of how technology attempts and continues to embed music in our lives, such as ideas about the ‘house of the future’ where music follows you from room to room, smart clothing with sensors to detect the wearer’s mood and subsequently determine appropriate playlists, as well as the more familiar music streaming sites (YouTube, Spotify) and smartphone music apps. Here, she discusses various theories about listening, including Adorno’s model of the expert structural listener and Susan McClary’s closely related narrative listener, both of which, she argues, completely fail to engage in any productive way with the kinds of listening she wants to draw the reader’s attention to. (It is perhaps surprising to note at this point the absence of a few familiar names, such as Barthes and Nancy, from her considered and lively discussion of ubiquitous listening and its by-products.) Referring to work more closely [End Page 97] related to this subject only reveals that while the phenomenon of music’s ubiquitous presence has been theorised, the experience of ubiquitous listening, and what it engenders in and across us, has not. For example, Joseph Lanza describes elevator music as a technology of ‘environmental control’ (3) and Jonathan Sterne argues that music in malls serves architectural and territorialising functions, but neither author elaborates significantly on the relationship between music and elevator passenger or shopper. Only Ola Stockfelt’s ‘Adequate Modes of Listening’ comes close to theorising the experience, proposing that in order to pay scholarly attention to musics people engage with inattentively, we must become ‘active “idle listeners”’ (quoted at xxi). The paradox of Stockfelt’s proposal gives Kassabian an opening to develop a more nuanced theory of the experience of ubiquitous listening that centres around the production of distributed subjectivity through a constantly fluctuating relationship between affect, the senses, and attention in response to ubiquitous musics.
In her discussion of three videos made by different female Armenian filmmakers in chapter two, Kassabian develops important ideas about how scholarship might try to engage with and understand ethnic and national identities through listening to the sounds and musics of their cultural products. Although the connection between an arguably niche art form and ubiquity might initially seem obscure, it is noted that, like other high art forms, experimental video art will likely re-emerge in more popular cultural products, and that it can offer a critique of its more ubiquitous, mainstream cousins. It is made clear that such a selective study enables a productive and more focused consideration of distributed subjectivity as it arises through the shared affective experience of video art reception, and through the presentation and negotiation of Armenian identity.
Prevalent in all...