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Sonic Intimacy


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Table of Contents

Contents and AbstractsIntroduction: The Aural Phase chapter abstract

This opening section introduces the notion of vox mundi (voice of the world) by emphasizing the primary role of the wider soundscape in the origins of selfhood and the process of subjectification. In doing so, it outlines the fundamental historical-cultural distinction between voice and sound (as first detailed by Aristotle) before asking what kind of nonhuman voices our own noisy and presumptuous humanism prevents us from hearing.

1The Cybernetic Voice chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the digital or synthesized voice, to test our own humanist assumptions about what constitutes the organic voice of ourselves and our fellows, as well as what it manages to communicate beyond the content of a message. Focusing on Spike Jonze's recent film Her, which depicts a romantic relationship between a lonely man and a disembodied operating system, this section explores the seductive qualities and possibilities of a voice that originates in a machine rather than a larynx or a soul. The chapter then moves on to other modes of hypermediated or post-human vocality, such as ASMR videos and GPS systems, before reflecting on the mysterious lack of sonic erotica on the Internet. This section argues that the voice need not originate from a person or even an animal but in the age of digital technology can be considered an emergent property of the network condition.

2The Gendered Voice chapter abstract

This chapter explores some of the ways in which the voice has been historically and culturally gendered, and how women's voices have been misheard, suppressed, and controlled (especially in the past century or so, when it has been possible to liberate such voices from the body, thereby both complicating and amplifying their gendered resonances). Feminist readings of the voice, provided by Cavarero and Silverman, are supplemented with insights from Barthes and Dolar in order to forge the new concept of an "aural punctum": the sonic equivalent of a loaded and unexpected detail that rearranges the subject's relationship to time, self, and otherness. This section argues that gendered difference continues to haunt and inform our relationship to the voice, even as the voice begins to detach itself from its organic origins.

3The Creaturely Voice chapter abstract

This chapter traces some of the ways in which animals are presumed to have voices in popular culture and media. After a swift gloss on some influential-as well as some more recent-theories of the origins of language, this section discusses some viral videos or media moments featuring birds imitating humans (and vice versa). These moments, both comic and unsettling, highlight an aspect of the voice that we like to disavow: namely, the originary mimesis or echo on which it is founded. This chapter thus argues that the creaturely voice is the uncanny sound of animals attempting to express themselves- humans included-by incorporating themselves in a sonic circuit with other species.

4The Ecological Voice (Vox Mundi) chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the notion of the vox mundi, or "voice of the world," as a crystallizing concept for thinking together some of the key ways in which sound helps orient us in the wider environment, especially in relation to Nature, experienced as already lost or rapidly disappearing. After discussing Thoreau's understanding of natural sounds as inherently bound up with human artifacts and activities, this section then moves by way of R. Murray Schafer's influential notion of the "soundscape" to more recent attempts to listen to "the voice of the planet." In doing so, it seeks to find the nonmetaphoric residue within the metaphor of elemental voices. This chapter argues that the voice is much like beauty, located in the subject who recognizes it as much as being an essential property of the one said to possess it.

Conclusion: In Salutation of All the Voices chapter abstract

This concluding section ties together some of the threads of the previous chapters, noting that the ideas therein speak to the functional paradox of local intimacy, forged through global hailing or calling. After a swift tour of some contemporary examples of artworks (or scientific sites) that seek to somehow "allow the world to speak," the book closes by encouraging its readers to attune themselves to the sonic world in a less species-centric manner and to listen to the various voices of the earth, whether they be mineral, animal, natural, or technological.

About the Author

Dominic Pettman is Professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College and The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media (2016).


"The form and style of Pettman's book capture the character of this roving ear, always pricking up with the possibility of another intriguing example. Pettman is a very engaging writer, and the way he traverses contexts and theoretical horizons is thrilling...Pettman's writing is perhaps at its most exciting when it ignores expectations to pin down the voices of interlocutors and instead revels in throwing the voice, in making it seem as if it emanates from somewhere else. Pettman himself, whose body of writing gives the impression of an insatiable curiosity, is no doubt already chasing down other voices and other worlds. I urge readers, though, to let their ear linger a little longer over this intriguing little book that promises to help us discern voices where we least expect to hear them." -- Naomi Waltham-Smith * Boundary 2 *
"Sonic Intimacy is a perceptive, engaging, and clever set of meditations on a topic of increasing scholarly importance: how sound produces human, technical, and nonhuman intimacies. Pettman's treatment of sound across the human and nonhuman is innovative, refreshing, and quite needed at this time." -- Richard Grusin * University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee *
"With Sonic Intimacy, we are manifestly in the hands of a skilled and not a little playful writer who connects new media to long developed philosophical conversations. This is a book that catalyzes thinking as much as it documents thoughts, and its influence should be wide and varied." -- David Cecchetto * York University *

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