François J. Bonnet is perhaps better-known to readers of these pages by his pseudonym Kassel Jaeger, under which he has released a number of very fine recordings of music and sound art. His book The Order of Sounds: A Sonorous Archipelago is an attempt to develop “a radically pluralist philosophy of the sonorous and the audible”, setting out a detailed and provocative understanding what we mean when we talk about sound and listening. In the course of setting out his stall, Bonnet poses thoughtful challenges to some of the dominant discourses in sound art and practice of the past few decades.
The title of the book is a reference to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, and Bonnet’s reference points for his philosophy of sound are those of twentieth-century continental thought: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Barthes are quoted extensively. Using the tools provided by these luminaries, he posits sound as always already formed and ordered by discourse: that is, when we listen, we always already know what we are listening for, before we’ve heard a single thing, because we listen by way of the discursive conventions, norms, and structures that shape the realm of listening we are engaged in. We hear a sound as musical, for example, when we participate in a discourse called ‘music’ that primes our senses to perceive it and our minds to interpret and order it as such — even if the sound wasn’t originally produced with musical intent.
From this position, Bonnet is able to mount a cogent critique of Pierre Shaeffer’s ‘reduced’ listening, and shows how, by establishing conventions and protocols for listening practice, this discourse in fact creates the objects Shaeffer claims to access through their extraction from non-acoustic contexts. “To seek ‘to listen to sound for itself, as sound object’, is precisely to introduce formal determinations, ‘powers of language’, into the enterprise,” Bonnet writes. “In listening to sound ‘as object’, one precisely does not listen to the sound for itself… listening is always a stretching toward, and never stops at sound. It traverses it, goes through it, so as to arrive at something else, something that still belongs to the domain of sensation but also, already, to that of language.”
The acoustic ecology of R. Murray Schafer is examined equally stringently. Shafer’s ordering of sounds into a hierarchy of ‘high fidelity’ and ‘low fidelity’, and the subsequent overvaluing and urge to conserve ‘high fidelity’ sounds, reveal the workings of desire and power that Bonnet, following Barthes, identifies as being at the heart of all discourse. “[I]n Schafer… the overvaluation of sound, the faith in a pure and natural sound that must be defended, ends up as a mere pretext for the expression of a vision of the world.”
Bonnet’s argument that we listen discursively, and that everything we hear is formed and ordered by discourse, is persuasively made. Yet it still left me with a vague feeling of unease: surely discourse isn’t wholly determinant of sonic experience? Surely there are cracks or gaps through which some experience of a world beyond all discourse is somehow graspable? Isn’t it the case that we sometimes catch a glimpse, just the faintest rumour, of such elsewheres?
What Bonnet does with his theory in the final third of the book went a long way to addressing my concerns. Here he uses an extended metaphor of a ‘sonorous archipelago’ to show how discourse is capable of positing its own ‘outside’ as the horizon and limit of its powers. The archipelago functions in a manner not dissimilar from that of the wolf pack from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: it corrals and orders a disparate bunch of island- and islet-sounds into an established whole, thus acting as a vector of authority and power; at the same time, it is a multiplicity, an uncountable set of individual sounds both ‘real’ and ‘phantom’, and thus always on the edge of shifting, of becoming something else.
The mapping of discursive territory always introduces the possibility for deterritorialisations, for errors and errancies that carve out windows of autonomy in the authoritarian structure of discourse. This leads to some breathtaking articulations of the possibilities of experimental music and sound art, such as the following:
To understand that the archipelago is in constant movement, to admit that it is impossible to map, is first and foremost to facilitate the circulation of sound, its redistribution; to permit the emergence of the unheard. Certainly, the deterritorialised is still caught up in a territorial problematic; and yet, having forced the structure, or simply denied it, it is able once again to be a territory in becoming.
In the end, Bonnet’s return to the notion of sound as “the theatre of operations wherein the sonorous, that fleeting and mute entity, resists, persists, and contaminates all permanence, all audible certainty” perhaps risks turning ‘the sonorous’ into some kind of mythic vital force — “ineffable”, “unverifiable”, and hence non-falsifiable. Yet the potential of Bonnet’s ideas to provoke new ways of creating and listening to sounds and music, of deterritorialising authoritarian discourse by means of its own multiplicities and discordant becomings, is palpable in the later chapters of the book. The Order of Sounds helped me understand the legacy of continental philosophy a little better, and casts a much-needed sharp critical eye on some long-standing assumptions that hold sway over sound making and listening practices today.