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  • Vibrational Epistemology in the Nineteenth-Century American Soundscape:Music and Noise in Thoreau's Walden
  • Christina Katopodis (bio)

Henry David Thoreau was an illimitable and precise surveyor of sounds. Recording nonhuman sounds in Walden (1854), Thoreau listens promiscuously: to soliloquizing squirrels, belching bullfrogs, ringing church bells, and hissing steam engines. He translates close listening into writing sonic phenomena in all their nuance: trains heard from a distance and up close, owls heard willingly and unwillingly at night, echoes through thick forest trees, lovely melodies and violent cacophonies. While scholars have previously analyzed sound in Thoreau's writing, the relatively new field of sound studies offers systematic methods for analyzing the author's listening theory and practice embedded in his musical lexicon. He treated music as natural to all beings, eschewing the artificial hierarchies humans imposed on nature, particularly between human and nonhuman. Listening, for him, is a learning mode, what I call a vibrational epistemology: a situated listener's embodied knowledge of the heard sound connects her to its source and to the particular environment shaping its direction and texture. Sound, in other words, does not exist in a vacuum. Furthermore, in Walden, sensing sonic vibration is as much about embodied feeling (sound's material pressure on the skin, the ear's tympanic membrane, the hairs [End Page 382] in the cochlea, and the skull) as it is about affects (emotions, feelings). Adding my own approach to sound studies based in new materialism, I argue that embodiment, relationality, agency, and situatedness are key to Thoreau's listening theory as well as to reading and hearing Walden. I show that the text offers an open-ended survey of sounds, a comprehensive yet never totalizing account. Walden's soundscape breathes, rustles, and screeches in natural rhythms that shift with the weather, migration patterns, and mating seasons; thus, Thoreau could not fully contain, finish, or visually map Walden's vibrating soundscape.

I begin with sound and the body, how sound waves penetrate the individual and bring one into relation with other pulsing beings. Karen Barad and Jane Bennett help demonstrate the ways in which sonic vibrations unsettle boundaries and charge beings in agentic, reciprocal exchange.1 Next, I explore how different musical formulations characterize these exchanges by examining two key binaries Thoreau uses without hierarchical or moral judgments: harmony and discord, and music and noise. Combining musicological and ecocritical methods to analyze these four musical elements in Walden illuminates the power dynamics between agentic beings competing for sonic territory in a crescendoing soundscape. Finally, I center environmentalist politics on situated listening, reading sonic violence as a disruptive, climate-changing force, and adopting Thoreau's figure of the echo to imagine what multidirectional listening beyond the individual sounds like. Using sound felt within the individual as impetus to turn outward—especially toward relations with nonhumans—reorients the body as "part and particle" of nature, to use Ralph Waldo Emerson's phrasing from Nature (1836). Situated listening recovers nature's particularities and gives us cause, not for more idealization or ideation of nature, but for self-examination—of our (borrowing from Barad's formulation) "response-ability" in the ontoepistemology of sonic relations.2 [End Page 383]

Studying the aural in Walden uncovers the agency Thoreau ascribes to nonhuman sound producers and the responsibility he accepts as a situated listener. Writing before the existence of sound recording technology, he bears witness not just to the vaunted natural sounds often associated with transcendentalism but also to diverse industrial tones and improvised music, such as his hoe tinkling against stones in his bean field.3 Walden is, by the author's own declaration, an intentional exercise in listening: he sets out at the very start to convey what he himself hears rather than what he has "heard of" through other ears (W, 3). He transcribes sounds from the train's steady beat—par-tridge, par-tridge—to the martins' twittering and chickadees' day day day. Each tap and chirp activates the hinged relations between vibrating beings. Sharon Cameron comments on Thoreau's concern in Walden with the "discovery of sound," and I take her intuitive observation a step further: analyzing Walden's aural complexities reveals Thoreau's deliberateness...


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pp. 382-423
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