Sunday, July 05, 2020

Review: Sonic Agency

[Brandon LaBelle. Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018.]

A book concerned with "positioning sound and its discourses in dialogue with contemporary struggles," that attempts to seek out "ethical and agentive positions or tactics" grounded in "experiences we have of listening and being heard" (1). It does this by drawing on the scholarly area of sound studies and a range of other theoretical resources, as well as various manifestations of sound and listening, to construct four figures – the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant, and the weak – for re-thinking the social world and how we act to change it.

Given one of my major pieces of work at the moment, this should have been an inspiring and deeply informative read, but my experience of it was much more ambivalent than that. Though there definitely were fascinating new-to-me ideas in the book, and it did point me towards other sources that may be useful to me, I spent most of my time while reading it reflecting on the complicated relationship between academic work and struggles for collective liberation. As I've said lots of times before, I'm a firm believer that it is possible to read many different kinds of scholarly work in ways that can help inform such struggles, even when the work was not written with that intent in mind – this is rarely the most important thing for people doing intellectual work for and with movements to be doing, but it is at least possible and sometimes quite useful. And, like I said, there were things in here that felt that kind of useful to me. Like in the chapter on "the overheard," the book outlines an interesting vision for the ways in which the highly networked, mediated, and surveilled realities of at least many of us in rich countries create a distinctive social environment where much of both our own experience and formation, as well as our contributions to the experiences and formation of others, are arbitrary, fragmented, unintended encounters. What does that actually mean for who we are, how we know the world, and how we might act to change it? Questions worth asking, I think. And there were plenty of other bits and pieces – far from all, but more than a few – that got at aspects of the social world in new-to-me and interesting ways.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding those bits, lots of this book also felt disconnected and not very useful. And I am not sure quite how to talk about it, because I don't want to feed into the anti-intellectualism in the general culture or the variant that pops up in movements – I don't think it helps to be dismissive of anti-intellectual responses and we should work to understand where they come from, because it is often connected to power and is enflamed by the more ridiculous and elitist elements of scholarly research and writing, but I don't want to contribute to it. At the same time, this is a book that draws explicitly on movements, written by someone who seems to have political commitments that seem like pretty good ones to me, and when I sit and think about how its substance specifically when it comes to things like agency and change might be useful...I don't come up with much. I worry I'm being unfair or ungenerous. No doubt other readers would have a different experience than me. And like I said I think there are bits and pieces in it about how the social world today works that are potentially useful. But much that seems to want to be relevant to struggles for justice and liberation seems to be floating in the air somewhere, disconnected and not easy to pull down to earth.

I've been trying to articulate a bit more clearly what it is about the work that makes me say that. I'm sure if I took more time than I care to, I could come up with something. But my best preliminary guess goes back to feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith's insight from decades ago about the very real, material divide between knowledge that emerges from a grounding in the world of the everyday and most knowledge in the academy that is produced in relation to other institutional discourses and the ruling regimes in which they are embedded.

On a related but narrower and perhaps more petty note, I also found it frustrating that the book would retreat into asking rhetorical questions, often as a device to suggest a certain sort of relationship between its ideas and struggle, without actually having to definitively claim that relationship and therefore have to defend it.

Anyway. Reading this has not fundamentally changed my sense of the kinds of things I think are worth reading, or my sense of the relationship between scholarly work and movemenets. But it perhaps makes clearer something that I already knew: that the relationship between the topic of a given piece of work and its likelihood of containing useful-to-me ideas is a complicated one.

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