- Echo’s EchoSubjectivity in Vibrational Ontology
What echoes in me is what I learn with my body: something sharp and tenuous suddenly wakens this body, which, meanwhile, had languished in the rational knowledge of a general situation: the word, the image, the thought function like a whiplash. My inward body begins vibrating as though shaken by trumpets answering each other, drowning each other out: the incitation leaves its trace, the trace widens and everything is (more or less rapidly) ravaged.—Roland Barthes, “Reverberation,” in A Lover’s Discourse1
Ibegin from the ambivalence of Barthes’s discourse: in reverberation—resonance, vibration—I am somewhere between pleasure, pain, and power. “I” scarcely exist, buffeted by the invading resonance, something that violently imposes itself upon my body. Am I aroused? Am I destroyed? Where am I in this event, this assault? Returning to this passage in A Lover’s Discourse as I reflected on how best to honor Suzanne Cusick in these pages, I was struck by Barthes’s language and its uncanny similarities to the accounts of acoustical violence that Cusick has tracked for the past decade. It may seem a perverse comparison or a lapse of the author’s ethical sensibility, but the comparison is apt, for in what follows I trace the problem of resonance as it relates to the fundamental philosophical question raised by Cusick’s investigations of music as torture. She asks us how we might think subjectivity as the intersection of two insights: that we live in a resonating, vibrating world, which we ourselves are [End Page 142] part of (resonated and resonating); and that at the same time we are subjects, discrete unique entities with some sense of separateness from the resonant web of the world. We arrive at this crux, this passage of world to self and back again in moments of pleasure and pain, mediated by power.
The speculative kernel of Cusick’s thought emerges only in considering the totality of her investigation into the practices and bureaucracies of acoustical violence in the twenty-first century. In the essay marking the beginning of Cusick’s publications on the topic, she hazards a risky research program:
I want to think much more about the eerie resonances between the aesthetics implied by theorists of “no-touch torture” and the aesthetics shared by a wide range of music cultures since the 1960s—the music cultures that formed my sensibility, and, arguably, the sensibilities of those who designed, who command and who implement the acoustic aspects of “no-touch torture” and acoustic battle.2
I remember encountering these words as a young graduate student and still feel their provocation, the whiplash of feeling that this is what musicology might do, that it might inquire and speculate on sound’s powers across a range of phenomena, that the aesthetic might be political. Most importantly, I intuited that “sensibility” might be a way to approach such questions.
Though assumed to operate on the realm of aesthetics, sensibility as forged by Cusick was a political tool, a means of exploring the sorts of politics that listening implies while not losing the sensitivity to aesthetic variety and difference.
As Cusick’s work has continued, it has become clear that she has limned the contours of a pervasive “crisis ordinariness,” a mode of existence affecting many that has forced us to accept a constant state of exception: surveillance, intensified state violence at home and abroad, and the at best ambivalent rule of law.3 Sound saturates the way we live now, and Cusick has provided something of an acoustemology of the present. Acoustemology is Steven Feld’s neologism: “an exploration of sonic sensibilities, specifically ways in which sound is central to making sense, to knowing, to experiential truth.” Yet Cusick’s work has shown that our acoustemology problematizes Feld’s claim that “experiences of place potentially can always be grounded in the acoustic dimension,” since current modes of acoustic experience render that grounding tenuously unstable.4 The acoustic dimension, exemplified in the scene of sonic torture, is today a nonplace, a space unhousing us from ourselves and disorienting us. Vibrations [End Page 143] and a body’s...