- Redeeming the Aural:Amodal Resonance and Media History
In tracing the hitherto overlooked influence of sound on the theory and practice of new media art, Frances Dyson’s Sounding New Media offers a productive point of entry into historicizing 1990s cyberculture and the newness of new media. Dyson’s central argument is twofold. First, Dyson claims that the features that supposedly mark new media as new—qualities such as tactile interactivity and total sensory immersion—have roots in older, predominantly sonic media (e.g., radio, telephone, and early electroacoustic sound art). In developing this first claim, Dyson argues additionally that “sound is simultaneously neglected and appropriated by the rhetorics of immersion and embodiment that have inaugurated new media discourse and have announced new media as ‘new’” (6). That is, for Dyson, the rhetorical frameworks through which we make sense of sound—the distinction between original sound and recorded sound, for instance, or between signal and noise—have quietly and tacitly laid the groundwork for the visual and tactile tropes we tend to use when we talk about digital media. At stake, then, is the redemption of the aural in a regime that only seems to be dominated by other sense modalities.
Although Sounding New Media offers a compelling impressive account of new media, the book has greater consequences for what has become a central problem for [End Page 507] scholarship on audiovisual media in general—namely, the relationship between the modal and the amodal. By modal, I mean the idea that sensory experience differentiates into discrete modalities: sight, sound, touch, smell, and so on. In contrast, to describe sensation as amodal is to emphasize how any given perceptual event cannot be reduced to just one modality. When a car speeds by me, for instance, I not only hear and see the car but also feel a rush of air and a slight rumble. In cinema and media studies, the following questions arise: How do media such as the cinema and television use sight and sound to evoke sensations that resonate in the human body amodally, beyond merely the visual and sonic modalities? And, for that matter, how can we identify ourselves as scholars in one modality—musicology, sound studies, visual culture, and so on— while doing justice to the richness and complexity of resonance among multiple modalities? Dyson answers these questions by using a sonic figure: the embodied voice. The dominant tendency in cinema and media studies, however, has been to answer in another register: that of touch.
The aspect of touch that has done the most theoretical work is the reflexivity of self-touching—in particular, the experience of touching one’s left hand with one’s right hand. Especially in film theory, scholars such as Jennifer Barker and Vivian Sobchack have taken this figure from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who uses it to describe the fundamental reversibility of subject and object in perception. For example, for Barker, just as I may reverse between being in my left hand touching the right hand and in my right hand touching the left, so, in the cinema, may I reverse between being in my body and being in the counterfactual world of the film.1 The amodal is central to this discussion in that tactile structures come to underpin all other sense modalities; the tactile is posited as the reversibility from which all other modes of reversibility derive. This bias toward the tactile—and an attendant denigration of the visual—is less ingrained in the field of media studies, in which Dyson is writing, than it is in the narrower field of cinema studies. It is, however, present, and is best exemplified by media theorist Mark B. N. Hansen’s concept of “primary tactility,” which he develops in Bodies in Code (2006). Tactility is primary or originary for Hansen in that other modalities, such as vision, need something outside the body—a “technical artifact,” such as a mirror—to produce the kind of specular, reflexive relation (seeing oneself seeing-oneself...