Mack Hagood’s “Sonic Technologies of the Self”

The core idea of the “page 99 test” – that a part of the work reveals the whole – proves true in my dissertation, with a bit of a twist.

In Sonic Technologies of the Self, I examined the history and present of what I have come to call “orphic media,” devices used to fabricate a preferred sense of space through sound. Like Orpheus, who protected himself and his fellow Argonauts from the Sirens’ fatal song by playing his lyre, orphic media users fight sound with sound to remix their social-spatial entanglements. Examples of orphic media include noise-canceling headphones, white noise generators, and digital apps that create the sounds of waterfalls and bird-filled forests.

Orphic media give the lie to any simple equivalence between “media” and “communication technology.” Rather than facilitating communication, orphic media are often used to generate a simulation of silence so that the user can sleep, concentrate, or relax on their own. In orphic media use, sound becomes a technology of the self, creating a space in which users can be the self they think they are supposed to be. As a rule, this is a better-sleeping, more-efficient self that can meet the demands of a neoliberal economy by severing sonic ties to others.

But on page 99, I discuss an exception to this sleep/concentration binary, one that shows this rule is neither natural nor technologically determined. This page concerns a pioneer of orphic media—an audio producer, photographer, and marketer named Irv Teibel, who put all of his skills to use in a series of records called environments (1969-79).

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A bit of a snake-oil salesman, Teibel was the first to create field recordings such as “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” and “Wind in the Trees” and market them as self-improvement tools. Teibel’s records, however, had a countercultural, communitarian vibe and were pitched as technologies to fight noise pollution, induce “mental trips,” and get people together:

Through his textual and pictorial framing of manipulated natural soundscapes, Irv Teibel succeeded in fabricating spaces of possibility through mediated sound. These spaces of possibility could be the outdoor imaginaries of lone listeners, but they could also be spaces of interpersonal connection and exploration—liminal spaces where ego boundaries could be weakened and transgressed, be it through talk therapy, encounter groups, or sex (99).

In today’s headphone/earbud culture personalized sound bubbles predominate, but Teibel’s work reminds us of other social-spatial possibilities for mediated sound.

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Mack Hagood. 2013. Sonic Technologies of the Self: Mediating Sound, Space, and Sociality. Phd dissertation, Indiana University.

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