The Thingness of Sound | Essay by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

[Thinking Resonance is a series articles based on a bidirectional relation considered between sound and thinking, approaching the interstice between thinking about and/or through sound/listening, that is, sonority both as object of study and as speculative/critical device]

The Thingness of Sound

By Mandy-Suzanne Wong


The possibility that sounds might be objects, entities, or things is an open question.  However, many theories of sound close the question down via reductive assertions. Some argue that sounds cannot be things because things are autonomous entities whereas sounds are relative. Others argue that sounds cannot be things because things are durable bodies whereas sounds are temporal phenomena. The following essay begins by reviewing and critiquing these arguments as they appear in musicology, sound studies, and philosophy.  Arguments against sound’s autonomy are generally motivated by anthropocentric ideologies, which by presuming humans’ ontological privilege reduce sounds to human experiences, practices, and conditions.  Meanwhile, arguments against sound’s durability are troubled by the Sorites paradox.  The trouble with these arguments is that they dissimulate sound’s absolute otherness and lasting impact; moreover, in the end they can neither disprove nor affirm sound’s object-potential.  In an attempt to rehabilitate the question of sound’s thingness, the second half of my discussion proposes an object-oriented ontology for sound.  Developed by Graham Harman, object-oriented ontology (OOO) offers an open-ended conception of thingness as a continuous metabolism of temporal relationality and durable autonomy.  In OOO, things are paradoxical: every entity consists of a necessary, hidden essence and contingent presence, separated by an irreconcilable ontological rift.  Consequently, things are irreducible to their relations even as they are their relations. As things in the object-oriented sense, sounds would retain their potent and absolute otherness while losing none of the experiential relativity that’s crucial to aesthetic theories.  Further, the withdrawn ambiguity of entities in OOO ensures that ontology remains an open question.  In fact, the difficulty involved in either committing or objecting to sound’s thingness demonstrates that sound calls the ontology of objects into question.  Sounds make questions out of thingness and things.


sound object, object-oriented ontology, Graham Harman, anthropocentrism

Is a sound a thing?

To doubt the productivity of this question is only reasonable.  Neither philosophy nor empirical science can prove or disprove sound’s thing-status. One would be justified in wondering if the matter isn’t an ontological conundrum but a semantic quibble based on the vagueness of the terms.  But the meaning of the word “thing” hinges on how real things actually are, not just on what people think they mean when they speak about things.  Words are real relationships between humans and other beings, and these relationships have real, sometimes dangerous effects.

It’s standard in certain practices to treat sounds as things. Electroacoustic composers such as Chris Cutler, Curtis Roads, and Steve Takasugi use terms like “sound object”, “sound particle”, or “sound specimen” to describe sounds, samples, and musical phrases that function as relatively stable, self-contained units.  Sound artists explore and interrogate the tactile materiality of their medium.  Toshiya Tsunoda, for example, treats field recordings as found objects that, isolated from the context in which the artist captured them, acquire a certain autonomy.[1]  In contrast, the pop-music industry sells, steals, and squabbles over sonic units as commodities, mythologically assimilating “intellectual property” to other forms of property like cars and houses.[2]  Scholars since Adorno have fearfully predicted the commodity form’s suppression of artists’ creativity, listeners’ individuality, and music’s communicative ability.[3]

Shrewd recognition of sound’s object-qualities – its durability, autonomy, salability, and physicality – also underlies its evermore frequent deployment as a weapon.  American forces in the Middle East and Guantánamo regularly use loud music as a kind of aerial bomb, siege weapon, or torture instrument, and unleash sonic cannons upon peaceful protesters like those of the Occupy movement.  Sound-cannon manufacturers explicitly compare sounds to rubber bullets, suggesting that the former may substitute for the latter in efforts to comply with inconvenient legislation against shooting people.[4]  This fungibility implies that because sounds and bullets impact human bodies with equivalent force, sounds and bullets are the same kind of entity: those who make and buy sound cannons use, understand, and advertise sounds as self-contained, tangible objects durable enough to permanently damage human flesh.

But the manufacturers seem to anticipate that the harmful aspects of their products would not escape those (thoughtful TV viewers and liberal Congresspersons) who take the conception of sound-as-thing to its logical conclusion.[5]  To preempt humanitarian criticism, then, the manufacturers downplay the autonomous physicality of sound, emphasizing instead its intangible, communicative qualities. The idea is to dissimulate the cannon’s cruelty and allow it to masquerade as a harmless mass-communication device.  This tactic takes advantage of prevailing ideologies that tout the fleeting intangibility and relativity of sound, and discourage or decry its thing-power: its physical impact and otherness.

It’s all too easy to perpetuate ideologies of transience and relativity by insisting that sounds are not objects but experiences or practices. Discourses that abjure the thingness of sound tend to close themselves off to alternate views, foreclosing the possibility of further questioning by reducing sound to relativistic origins that are too subjective to contest.  Temporality and relationality are integral aspects of the being of sound, but they do not tell the whole story.  Anthropocentrism desensitizes theorists to the other aspects of sound which are irreducible to human experiences and circumstances.

Humanistic objections to sound’s thingness generally draw upon an apparent incompatibility between what the objectors take to be the defining qualities of things and the defining qualities of sound: things are durable and autonomous, sounds are transient and relative.  The relativism of most sonic theories is of a peculiarly anthropocentric kind that presumes the ontological priority of human beings or human social structures, as if sounds could not exist without us.  This assumption is inaccurate.  Discourses built upon concomitant theories therefore cannot effectively critique acoustic weaponry, musical torture, and other forms of sonic abuse because those practices subscribe to the same ideologies, denying sound’s autonomous, lasting impact in the interests of humanistic dissemblance.

In §1 of my discussion, I’ll critique sound scholars’ objections to the autonomy entailed by sonic thingness, arguing that such objections issue from anthropocentric ideologies.  As I’ll cover in §2, the apparent incompatibility between things and sounds derives from a reductive understanding of sounds and things in terms of durability.  Given that sound’s potential object-status cannot be disproved on the basis of sound’s transience or its relationships with humans, I will reconsider sonic thingness as a serious possibility in §3.  What are sounds and what are things, if sounds can be things?  I will propose an object-oriented ontology for sound based on Graham Harman’s pioneering work, which reveals things to be stranger and more potent than humans want to believe.  As OOO foregrounds the hiddenness and paradoxicality of things, maintaining their autonomy and durability without sacrificing their relationality or temporality, this ambiguous metaphysics demands that humans give up the mistaken presumption that we were ever ontology’s star players, and recognize the potent otherness of sound.  OOO seems to advocate the de-anthropocentric tenets of radical ecology: humans neither possess nor are entitled to mastery over nonhumans; so nonhumans, including sounds, exist for themselves, not for us or because of us.  These precepts might be more desirable than anthropocentrism, especially at this moment in our planet’s history, but decisions for or against sonic thingness on the basis of any ideology are precisely what I set out to oppose.  Fortunately, as I conclude in §4, OOO forces the objectness of sound to remain an open question which itself calls things and relations into question.

Before delving into the argument proper, I would like to clarify my use of sources and terms.  This essay is about sound, not specifically about music, though it was in musicology that I first encountered the question of sound’s thingness.  My interdisciplinary inquiry therefore addresses musicology as well as sound studies.  I draw on both analytic and continental philosophies, taking no part in their conflict, only seeking their responses to the questions at hand.  Although my discussion of OOO occurs largely in §3, I introduce Harman’s tenets in preceding sections where relevant.  I consider all sounds to be ontologically equivalent regardless of their source, duration, loudness, or assigned cultural value. And I use the terms “thing”, “object”, and “entity” interchangeably throughout.  This usage conforms to Harman’s but diverges from phenomenological usage such as that of Heidegger, who distinguishes between objects and things.

1. Against Autonomy

In musicology and sound studies, arguments against the possibility of sound’s thingness are common.  A popular contention is that things are self-contained whereas sounds are contingent on what people do.  For proponents of this view, distinguishing between human perceptions or practices and the sounds involved therein requires several undesirable moves, e.g.: misrepresenting the fundamentally human activity that is music;[6]ignoring deconstruction, the “linguistic turn” and other philosophical trends;[7]and submitting to undesirable ideologies.

For example, Rodgers claims that any conception of sounds as “differentiated individuals” is actually a metaphor based on capitalist, individualist, and scientific ideologies that render human subjects classifiable and quantifiable.[8]  Since the nineteenth century, she argues, sounds have been understood analogously to human bodies.  Scientists and philosophers began to treat sounds as autonomous entities when the dissection of human bodies into autonomous components, classification of humanity as an autonomous species, and discrimination between members of autonomous genders and ethnic groups became customary, all in the name of “fantasies of control.”[9]  For Rodgers, sonic autonomy is a reifying metaphor that perpetuates the desire for biopower and the reductive categorizations that result in racism and chauvinism.

In contrast, the idea that sound is ontologically indistinguishable from human perceivers dates back to the beginning of modernity.  According to Erlmann’s rich historical analysis, an analogy between sound-perception and reasoning, both of which were understood as forms of sympathetic resonance, dominated philosophical and scientific theories from Descartes’ time to Adorno’s.  The analogy became so prevalent that by the nineteenth century it was no longer an analogy but a physical confluence: sound could not exist unless someone human heard it. Sound, hearing, and hearer became one and the same.  “[W]e ourselves are the string that, set into motion, perceives its own sound from inside to outside, perceives itself…as if one were this tone oneself; its essence and our own are one,” said Ritter in 1806.[10]  Thus we are ontologically prior to any sound.  In listening, we make sounds what they are: as Helmholtz claimed, “aerial vibrations do not become sound until they fall upon a hearing ear.”[11]  Erlmann identifies this solipsistic, anthropo- and ego-centric perspective with “hypochondria”: “an amplification of not just one’s sense of bodily malfunctioning, but of a person’s sensory sphere more generally and of everything else along with it: meaning, subjectivity, language, and thought.”[12]

Regarding the conflation of sound and hearing, Erlmann’s concern isn’t sound’sloss of autonomy – the other’s loss of otherness, which I hope to foreground here – but our own.  Depriving sounds of their autonomy means depriving us of ours: “the more that the boundaries of the object world appear to dissolve…the more [one’s] own self loses its substance.”[13]  That said, restoring sounds’ autonomy – admitting their self-contained existence by acknowledging that what one hears isn’t just oneself shuddering in an empty world – does not restore the “freedom” of the human subject.  Rather, “self-contained” sounds are authoritarian and oppressive in Erlmann’s analysis.  He therefore disapproves of music that seems to achieve autonomy from its perceivers or “total object status.”  In such music, “the attendant concept of a ‘for someone’ or audience have all but vanished.”  Existing only for itself, such music is “inhuman” in the cruel sense of totalitarianism, Erlmann writes.  If a listener cannot hear (or impose) “echoes” of herself in what she hears, “Listening becomes Gehorchen, an act of obedience.”[14]

What Erlmann calls obedience Harman calls “sincerity”.  In OOO, every object essentially exists for itself, not “for someone”, i.e. not for the sake of or because of any human requirement or presence; but from the object-oriented perspective, this state of affairs is nothing like totalitarianism.  To practice OOO is indeed to expose ourselves to the autonomous otherness of objects. Doing ontology means“mak[ing] oneself ever more vulnerable” to nonhuman things.[15]  It entails “radical openness to other beings, without goal.”[16]  From this perspective, listening doesn’t mean listening for oneself but coming into contact with sonic entities that are irreducible to oneself.  However, such vulnerability need not entail the destruction of our freedom or curtail our own influence upon what we hear.  As Harman suggests (§3), a thing is one thing for itself and another thing for each of us.  What does hint at authoritarianism is the notion that nonhuman autonomy is morally objectionable.  So does the related notion that sounds or any other nonhumans ought to be “for someone” (cf. Sterne).  If one objects to the idea of sonic thingness on the assumption that things are autonomous and sounds shouldn’t be, the objection is susceptible to charges of xenophobic utilitarianism.

A related problem pervades Kane’s incisive critique of what Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of sampling and musique concrète, called l’objet sonore.  Inspired by Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, Schaeffer claimed that if one ignores a sound’s references to the world beyond itself – forgetting its implications of a source, ignoring its semantic and communicative potential – one will hear the sound “in itself.”  This “in-itself” or essence of sound is a “sound object”: a sound that “no longer functions for-another as a medium” but rather “designate[s] something ‘discrete and complete.’”[17] Schaeffer hoped that such “bare sounds” might function as “basic ontological unit[s]” that provide common ground between musical and acoustic research.[18]  He attempted to guide listeners towards sound objects by using recording equipment to separate sounds from their original causal sources.  Ultimately, though, the reduction is an act of consciousness: one simply excludes referential possibilities from one’s attention.  What’s left is not the sound that enters one’s ears from outside but the content of one’s own, deliberately restricted perception. A sound object is “the fruit of a mode of ‘considering’ or listening to the fragment torn from the whole.”[19]  It “only comes into being when it is cognized, when it is something capable of being apprehended by a subject.”[20]  Here again, sound object and sound perception are one and the same.  A sound object amounts to the subjective decision to hear in a certain way, perhaps analogous to the designation of a class, type, or category.[21]

What Kane objects to in Schaeffer’s work is the ignorance of subjective difference and sociohistorical context that listening to sound objects entails.  If a sound possessed the discrete, stable “in-itself” that Schaeffer unsuccessfully proposed, then every listener who heard it would essentially hear the same thing; the difference between listening experiences would be moot.[22]  For Kane, however, sounds are precisely the unique, temporally situated, sociohistorically determined situations of those who hear them.  Sounds “do not simply constitute a realm of essence detachable from their moment, sites of production, or reception.  Rather, they need to be recognized as a sedimentation of historical and social forces.”[23]  From this perspective the idea of sonic autonomy is nothing but “hardheaded idealism.”[24]

According to Kane, Schaeffer contracted his idealism from Heidegger, who understood technology as something separate from its sociohistorical context.[25]  Harman agrees with Heidegger on this point, though Harman is no idealist but a broad-minded realist.  As I’ll discuss (§3), in OOO things do exist independently of human concerns, actions, and social structures; in fact being an object meansbeing autonomous, irreducibly other, permanently uncanny.  But for Kane, that autonomy makes sound objects untenable.  Music consists of “historically specific persons involved in artistic or critical engagements with the technological means at hand,” he says, suggesting that sonic ontologies should proceed from the same perspective.[26]  Sonic discourse “must resist the reliance upon ahistorical ontologies,” he contends.[27]  The implication is that when discourse eliminates sociohistorical context and subjective difference, e.g. by positing the thingly autonomy of sound, music is reduced to “phantasmagoria”: a product that disguises its human origins in order to appear self-sufficient – and that smacks of ideology.[28]

But so does Kane’s assertion that sounds “are simply a sedimentation of historical and social forces.”  Like Erlmann’s, this analysis is phantasmagorical in the opposite sense: it conceals the self-contained, nonhuman otherness of sound so that sound may appear ontologically dependent on human productive forces.  As Cox notes, this kind of analysis “falls prey to a provincial and chauvinistic anthropocentrism…for it treats human symbolic interaction as a unique and privileged endowment,” perpetuating the falsehood that “human beings inhabit a privileged ontological position.”[29]

In that sense, despite Kane’s disagreement with Schaeffer, the two theorists make the same reduction on different scales.  Schaeffer’s guileless use of recordings to divorce sounds from their instrumental sources deprives the sounds of their specific nonhuman otherness, reducing them to subjective human experiences.  For Schaeffer the essence of sound is the content of a particular human subject’s deliberately honed aural perceptions.  While Kane opposes this solipsistic analysis, his objection boils down to the claim that the sociohistorical situations of listening subjects must be taken into account.  From that more encapsulating perspective, Schaeffer’s basic thesis may hold true: a sound is its production and reception by (sociohistorically situated) humans.[30]  Schaeffer’s thinking differs from Kane’s only in the latter’s specification that the humans in question do their listening and creating in the context of interpersonal relationships.  Kane’s unwritten assumption that musical sound must be thought anthropologically belies the same anthropocentrism that undergirds Schaeffer’s.  For both theorists, the essence of sound is only human.

While it’s true that an exhaustive analysis of music must account for the human players, actions, traditions, social circumstances, and ideologies involved, such an analysis should also account for what makes sound soundand not just another human construct.  Schaeffer recognized that music exists somewhere “between nature and culture.”[31]  Despite the false dichotomy produced by his reductive terminology, his remark is telling. It implies that music consists of nonhuman entities and acts (“nature”) as well as human ones (“culture”).  Specifically, sound objects or sounds in-and-for-themselves are “givens” or “grounds” that humans filter and interpret when we make and hear music.  “Sound dwells in all things,” but “melodies…inhabit only the bosom of man,” Schaeffer intoned: music is humans’ selective reduction of the all-encompassing otherworld of sound.[32]  If human perceptions and practices reduce essentially nonhuman sounds to enculturated, sociohistorically conditioned phenomena, the common essence of music and acoustics is not perception but the worldwide population of idiosyncratic, self-contained, nonhuman sonic entities that exceed perception.

Altogether, objections to sound-things as autonomous entities are largely objections to the chauvinistic, authoritarian, or essentialist ideologies of reification implied thereby.  According to Sterne, scholars fear that thanks to the “objectification” of sound “we have forgotten how to think about music as…driven by involvement and participation, and this forgetting has limited the possibilities for ourselves and for a more just and egalitarian world.”[33]  The general opinion seems to be that it would be better to reduce sound to a matter of human action, culture, history, or ideology than to risk underplaying humans’ ontological privilege.  This despite the unpopularity of idealism and the audible sense that there is something to sound that is not ourselves.  That otherness is what makes sound sound, an alien being that no perception or representation can entirely capture.

Humans’ desire for control over ourselves and our environment is in a sense understandable, as perhaps it goes along with our instinct for self-preservation.  When foreignness invades our ears, we sense this control slipping away, and with it our existential certainty.  Like any deep desire, this attitude can be overcome; but dispelling ourselves from the center of concern is never easy.  With an ideology that might stem as much from instinct as from centuries of use, we cling to views like Sterne’s: sound is a thing only insofar as it is “for someone” – a non-autonomous “bundle of affordances.”[34]  Citing Heidegger, Sterne writes that things are only things – that is, only exist at all – because of what they enable people to do.[35]  A thing is nothing of its own accord, only the possibility of some human action. Sterne reduces all things to commodities: use-value plus exchange-value.

The problem could be Heidegger, who believed in humans’ ontological priority.  His essay “The Thing” seems to influence several arguments against sonic thingness.  The jugness of a jug is in no way determined by the jug, he writes.  By putting wine in it, I decide that it’s a jug.[36]  Insistent on rigid differences between humans and nonhumans, Heidegger grants the ability to encounter something “as” something (jug as jug, sound as sound) to humans alone – although experience reveals that cars relate to sounds as sounds and not as petrol, elephants relate to sounds as sounds and not as food, sounds relate to ears as ears and not as delicate champagne glasses.  “Heidegger seems to think that human use of objects is what gives them ontological depth,” Harman writes.[37]  “This approach wrongly casts Daseinin philosophy’s starring role, while preserving the unfortunate belief that the world…[consists of] neutral slabs of material accidentally shuffled around or colored by human viewpoints.”[38]

2. Against Durability

Heidegger’s reductive view of things defines them first by their availability to humans, second by their durability.  “A jug is a thing insofar as it things,” he says, and “thinging” seems to mean a thing’s “gathering” of its constitutive and relational characteristics into a “manifold-simple” unity that “stays for a while.”  A thing is a phenomenon that issues from the world and in its own way “stay[s] put” to in turn implicate the world.[39]  Presumably a sound couldn’t be a thing for Heidegger, since although sounds are of the world and available to humans, sounds do not “stay.”

Accordingly, many music and sound scholars object to the idea that sounds possess anything like the durability of things.  Instead they subscribe to traditional theories of sound as vibrations of a medium.[40]  In all such views, the preeminent quality of sound is transience: sounds do not “last,” therefore they are not things, and arguments to the contrary are paradoxical. For example, Eidsheim writes: “the experience of sound is temporal – arising and coagulating only to pass all too quickly.  Thus a musical experience is not somethingthat can be captured in notation, but an open-ended and pluralistic negotiation of sound in all its physicality.”[41]  Similarly, for Cox, “sounds are peculiarly temporal and durational, tied to the qualities they exhibit over time,” so “[i]f sounds are particulars or individuals…they are so not as static objectsbut as temporal events.”[42]

O’Callaghan recognizes that sounds have qualities of objects andevents.  Sounds are “traveling particulars [that] are in certain respects surprisingly object-like. They can be created; they have reasonably defined spatial boundaries but persist through deformation; they survive changes to their locations and other properties; and they are publicly perceptible.”[43]  Granted, “they make peculiar sorts of objects: their capacity to overlap and pass through themselves [and others] makes them stranger than most everyday objects.”[44]  Indeed, a sound is also “something that happens to” something: “a dynamic occurrence that takes place within [a] medium.”[45]  Eventually O’Callaghan discards sonic objects in favor of events.  He concludes: “whatever events turn out to be, sounds should count as events.”[46]  But having conceded, given sound’s ambiguity, that “the difference between events and time-taking particulars and objects may be just a matter of degree,” he apparently permits the possibility that events might turn out to be objects.[47]

Struck by this same possibility, Cox proposes that instead of basing sound’s ontology on that of objects, philosophers should do the opposite: consider the ontology of objects in terms of that of sound.  “Indeed to begin with sound is to upset the ontology of ‘objects’ and ‘beings’, suggesting that the latter are themselves events and becomings.”[48]  This is the beginning of an idea that is at home in OOO; but unlike Cox, Harman realizes that it cuts both ways: if being means occurring, then occurring is also being. Entities are events and events are entities (see §3).

O’Callaghan and Cox are unwilling to go this far.  In their analyses, despite the latter’s commitment to Deleuzian flux, events and objects do not ontologically flow into each other but stumble into an ancient paradox.  If objects are merely events of long duration – or as Cox says, “becomings that, however, operate at relatively slow speeds” – then presumably sounds (which in Cox’s view are notobjects) are events of short duration or becomings at higher speeds.[49]  Does this mean that protracted sounds are in fact objects?  Does it mean that short-lived objects are not objects?  A mayfly lives for twenty minutes: its lifetime is shorter than a Romantic symphony, shorter than the average piece of drone music.  Yet isn’t a mayfly a thing, in the sense of an autonomous, durable entity?  How long must staying stay in order to be thinging?

This is a version of the Sorites paradox, first attributed to Eubulides of Miletus: how many hairs must someone lose in order to be bald?  If a rock loses its atoms one by one, how many can it lose before it’s no longer a rock?  How long must a sound be in order to be a thing?  These questions are paradoxes because their solutions rely on indeterminable limits.  The durability of sound is relative.  The blare of a car horn might fade out of my hearing in a matter of seconds but linger in the ears of a street elephant or imperceptibly flutter a thread on a tasseled awning long after the fact.  The durability of things is equally variable: compare a quick-dissolving tablet with a mayfly or sequoia.  But the problem runs deeper than that.  Where do sound and tablet end, breeze and water begin?  The problem with sounds and things is ontological vagueness.  There’s no decisive boundary between what they are and are not.

Thomasson believes that this is a problem with language, not an ontological problem or even a philosophical one: “vagueness resides in our representations, not in the world” and its denizens.[50]  Phenomena themselves aren’t vague, only our descriptive terms.  This includes the words “object” and “thing”, which Thomasson says are too vague to make ontological distinctions.  To ask if some phenomenon qualifies as a thing is therefore an “underspecified, unanswerable question,” she attests.[51]  But this argument simply shuts the question down.

Why couldn’t there be vague objects without rigid ontological boundaries?  Aren’t human bodies such objects?  Wouldn’t my body remain my body if someone took a kidney out of it?  Yet isn’t it simultaneously true that there is no difference between my body and my kidney? The boundaries between us are fluid, fuzzy questions.

Might a sound be a vague object?  I’ve cited several theorists who believe that the boundaries between sound and not-sound are questionable, yet some boundaries must exist.  Even these theorists sense some kind of division between what sound is and what it’s not.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t argue a distinction between sounds and things.  Just as quantum physics turns the difference between particles and waves, entities and changes, into an open question, so the question of sound’s thingness reopens the question of things’ vagueness.

It therefore isn’t true that “vague predicates” like the word “thing” say nothing about reality.  Vague predicates reveal that reality is vague; they open it for questioning. It’s durability that is “purely arbitrary” as an ontological criterion.[52]  The Sorites problem demonstrates that duration isn’t evidence enough for or against the thingness of sound or any other event.  Rather, sound’s apparent lack of durability complicates the questionable relationship between durability and things.

In other venues, I’ve made every objection to sonic thingness.  I’ve argued against phantasmagoria, atemporality, ideologies of reification and domination.  These objections remain valid in any realm that assumes: clear distinctions between human and nonhuman beings; the ontological, ecological, and ethical priority of humans over nonhumans; and the idea that all it takes to make and perceive art is sociohistorically conditioned human creativity.  I no longer believe in any of those things. However, that’s not to say that all aspects of prevailing sonic theories are not true.  Chauvinism and totalitarianism areunacceptable.  A sound isa wave, temporal phenomenon, and subjective experience.  It is indeed reductive to represent such phenomena as entities and vice versa.  Sonic experience is one of the most intimate experiences we have with our own bodies, as it happens in the depths of our heads; at the same time, this experience issociohistorically conditioned.  But none of that is all there is to it.  Sounds may be all of that as well as objective, non-ideal entities that exist in and for themselves, possessing and questioning autonomy and durability.

3. Object-Oriented Ontology

Adhering to a rigid dichotomy between things and events entails overlooking a crucial quality of both: things and events both perpetrate their being and in doing so physically impact other beings.  In Bennett’s vital materialism, a thing is an entity with “thing-power”: “a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference.”[53]  Objects are “agents,” Morton says, “in that through them causalities flow.”[54]

Sounds possess their own sounding-thing-power which renders it impossible to ignore the fact that the being of things is a doing and an impact.  Sounds are indeed causal agents: in music they inspire emotions, in sound cannons they inflict injuries.  Shaken by the sonic thing-power of music, Morton writes: it “tunes to me, pursuing my innards, searching out the resonant frequencies of my stomach, my intestines, the pockets of gristle in my face…sound as hyperobject, a sound from which I can’t escape, a viscous sonic latex.”[55]  On this view, sounds are things, their effectiveness reminds us of all things’ potency – and it’s reasonable to acknowledge that “music is a collective encounter between human and nonhumanbodies.”[56]

Thing-power is non-equivalent to Heideggerian affordance, which is for humans alone.  Instead, thing-power is the effect that things have on any and all other things, which may or may not be human.  Yet from Harman’s perspective even this idea is incomplete.  In vital materialism, he argues, each object seems “exhausted by its presence for another, with no intrinsic reality held cryptically in reserve.”[57]  But this unreachable “reserve” exists in OOO, wherein things are radically autonomous and durable, irreducible to any relationship or set of relations even as they are inherently relational, contextual, temporal, and effective.  This is one of many contradictions metabolizing at the heart of every being.

OOO is a plausible foundation for a credible theory of sonic thingness.  Harman’s metaphysics provides all entities with enough relationality and transience to satisfy sound theorists andmaintains the otherness of things.  It enables relations themselves, including events, to count as things.

The first tenet of OOO is that things are radically autonomous.  Even though an entity is the unified, systematic relation of its manifold qualities and components, which in turn is determined by contextual relations, the entity is also something separate, over and above those relations.  Harman writes: “objects will be defined only by their autonomous reality.  They must be autonomous in two separate directions: emerging as something over and above their pieces, while also partly withholding themselves from relations with other entities.”[58]  A sound is its frequency and amplitude; it is also more than that.  It’s an issuance from a source and a phenomenal relationship to hearers; and it is more than that.

This “something more” is a withdrawn essence unique to every individual, a “hidden surplus” inexplicable in terms of any relationship between the individual and another.[59]  Objects “withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness.”[60]  Further, “the same is true of the sheer causal interaction between rocks or raindrops. Even inanimate things only unlock each other’s realities to a minimal extent, reducing one another to caricatures.”[61] Harman explains: “[i]f numerous entities encounter any given object, each runs across it as a vastly different causal power to reckon with.  Each of them frames it from a specific perspective, opens itself up to it as a distinct and limited kind of impact…[T]he sum total of all such impacts never adds up to the reality of the [thing] – there is always more where that came from.  Every entity forever holds new surprises in store.”[62]

Harman’s term for the radically autonomous, superfluous, extraordinary, and imponderable essence of every entity is “tool-being”.  This has nothing to do with the thing’s role in human praxis; instead a thing’s tool-being is the aspect of it that withdraws from every causal and perceptual relation.  “The tool-being of the object lives as if beneaththe manifest presence of that object.”[63]  “[T]he real force of tool-being lies in its resistanceto all holism, its withdrawal behind any seamless web of relations…resist[ing] all possible practices, significations, and even inanimate contexts.”[64]

A thing’s withdrawn aspect is its essential aspect: what makes it truly itself.  A thing is durable in that there is always something left over of it from its relations, and what’s left over is the object’s existence in-and-for-itself, in its own terms and nothing else’s, not even in terms of atoms and quarks. Generally speaking, “there is strife between the presenceof a thing and its being.”[65]  “The true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world, but between objects and relations.”[66]  All relations are reductions.

Nothing demonstrates this more effectively than sound.  A human listener experiences an aria as a sound shaped by composers’ choices, performers’ idiosyncrasies, and certain aesthetic traditions – not as anything else, even though the sound has countless other features.  To a delicate glass, that same sound wouldn’t be an aria but a shattering blow.  The human listener reducesit to an operatic experience, unable to perceive it as a fatal blow.  The glass reduces it to a blow, unable to experience it as an aria. The air reduces it to a minor change, unable to detect either the aria or the death blow.  Meanwhile the sound itself is not only aria, disturbance, and mortal strike, but also more than all of those phenomena.  Every sound “withdraws into its vast inner reality, which is irreducible to any of its negotiations with the world.  Only in its relations with other entities is it caricatured, turned into a unitary profile.”[67]

The reductiveness of relation is evident in all the sonic theories I’ve described.  Each perspective reduces sound to one or a few of its numerous aspects, e.g., subjective experience, temporal event, sociohistorically conditioned human praxis or the possibility thereof.  These perspectives ignore others, e.g., sound as an autonomous agent with enough durable, tactile force to serve as a bullet-replacement.  And all perspectives overlook the hidden surplus of every sonic interaction.  That excess is the sound in itself: not the exclusive phenomenon that Schaeffer called l’objet sonore, but something that eludes every phenomenon and description.

A thing’s durability is its excessiveness and hiddenness and its “reversal” into presence, into unitary profiles interacting with others.[68]  The staying-power of a thing is this continuous alternation between hidden essence and present caricature.  This “metabolism between [essential] being and [relational] beings” is the meaning of being.[69]

During its metabolism, a thing creates and exudes its own temporality and context. In OOO, temporality is not the fact that things don’t last; instead a thing’s temporal existence is precisely its metabolism of its hidden reality and relational caricatures as it withdraws from and manifests in its encounters.  Temporality “is really nothing more than this very interplay of reality and projection,” says Harman.[70]  “This thorough duality of every situation, this interplay of equipment and observer, shadow and light, is the specific chiaroscuroof every moment.”[71]  In addition, simply by being themselves, things to some extent determine how they relate to others, thereby generating and characterizing the total relational web that we call “the world”.  Being entails projecting oneself into context-generating relations.  Every entity is “sincerely engaged in executing itself, inaugurating a reality in which its characteristic style is unleashed.”[72]  Things create their contexts as they are their contexts.[73]  Objects explode being and time, as “even the single instantis already outside of itself…[T]he supposed static instant is not really static at all, but rather ek-static– already torn apart by its own incurable ambiguity”: that “internal strife between an entity’s subterranean force and its seductive façade.”[74]

Thus an apparently “static” thing isn’t unchanging or ahistorical but quite the opposite.  A thing isstrife, relation, and context even as it is not.  Moreover, “the converse is also true: every set of relations is also an entity.”[75]  Morton builds on this last point in his postulation that an autonomous object may be a grand system of relations on spatiotemporal scales too vast for any human to take in.  On this view, global warming is a thing, even as it is also an event and a condition. An earthquake is a thing, so is a climate.  Such grand objects, which Morton calls “hyperobjects”, are ambiguous, at once nonlocal and contextual, viscous and withdrawn.[76]  Even the most humble objects share these qualities.

And so does sound.  Since things in OOO are ek-static systems and self-contained essences, the OOO perspective neither brackets nor entirely submits to the contingencies so vital to sonic theories. Thereis room in OOO for sounds to be sociohistorical, temporal relations as well as durable entities that are irreducibly other.

OOO has other advantages too.  First, if all relations are incomplete, since no entity includes all of itself in any relation, then no entity or type of entity is ontologically prior to any other. Even the relationship between a thing and its own phenomenal qualities excludes the essence of the thing.  Hence neither humanity nor any of its practices or constructs can claim ontological privileges.  Rather, in OOO, things are absolutely first, not just as facets of a viscous cosmic mesh, but as self-contained, withdrawn individuals known to nobody, not even themselves.  Every being includes an infinite regress: “everyessencehas a deeper essence as well.”[77]  OOO posits an “irreducible dark side” to every object, which in the end is “unanalyzable” as it contains “objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects.”[78]

This is OOO’s second advantage.  Rather than foreclosing attempts to question the being of things, by virtue of its infinitude this paradoxical regress alwaysresistsforeclosure.  Things withdraw their singular truths from the briefest surface-encounters and the deepest ontological probes, which means that there is always more to ask.  Where visible objects like the jug tend to obscure, in a dazzling display of pretended obviousness, the relational non-relational contradiction that essentially metabolizes them, sounds foreground this contradiction.  Sounds’ strangeness illuminates the fact that all things and relations are stranger than they ever seem.  Sounds make questions out of thingness and things.

In the shifting but inclusive light of OOO, sounds put rigidifying ideologies and ontologies in their place.  Additionally, as OOO illuminates the weird viscosity of entities and encounters, sound’s extreme otherness and bizarre thingness become more overt possibilities.  While Cecchetto doesn’t embrace sound-things explicitly, his sonic theory is consistent with OOO.  He acknowledges the infinitely withdrawn quality of sound, which like dark matter is perceptible yet ultimately imperceptible.  “[E]very sound is a ghost,” he writes, “which is why we are always looking for the sources of sounds, trying to place and identify them: we hunt down hauntings and flush them out, only to always hear more.”[79]  Distinguishing what we hear from what sound actually is, Cecchetto also recognizes the reductiveness of relation.  When we hear a sound we register what we hear and “foreclose” the rest, he says.[80]  And since hearing is irrevocably tied to signification, we only ever hear what is meaningful to us: only sonic content that we can relate to ourselves and other beings.  What we hear is a caricature of actual sound – listening is reduction.  The sound itself, the “‘sound-ness’ of its sounds disappears,” withdraws from all hearing.[81]  As irreducible otherness that eludes every relation, sound is equivalent to Harman’s tool-being: the objectness of objects.  Cecchetto’s analysis paves the way for committed theories of sonic thingness based on OOO.

4. Questioning

Theories that reject the possibility of sonic things by denying sound’s autonomy and durability do so based on anthropocentric ideologies or reductive definitions of thingness that annul sound’s otherness and impact.  Such theories are primarily motivated by the fear that understanding sounds as durable, autonomous objects would dissimulate sound’s innate relationality and temporality.  But object-oriented ontology offers an open-ended conception of thingness as a continuous metabolism of temporal relationality as well as durable autonomy.  In OOO, things are paradoxical: every entity consists of a necessary, hidden essence and contingent presence, separated by an irreconcilable ontological rift. Consequently, things are irreducible to their relations even as they are their relations.  As things in the object-oriented sense, sounds would retain their potent and absolute otherness while losing none of the experiential relativity that’s critical to aesthetic theories.  OOO provides a democratic forum in which relational sonic theories and object-based sonic practices may approach reconciliation.  At the same time, OOO discourages attempts to posit a privileged type of being (Dasein or any other) to which sounds, entities, or relations may be ultimately reduced.  Instead, the withdrawn ambiguity of entities in OOO ensures that every ontology, including that of sound, will remain an open question.

But what if OOO were subject to critique?  It’s possible that like any other theory, this ontology rides on a hidden ideological undercarriage, not an anthropocentric one but just the opposite. Indeed it’s tempting to reduce OOO to the de-anthropocentric ideology that advances the agendas of radical ecology. Radical ecology critically opposes the capitalist principle that humans’ ontological and ethical priority entitles us to a coldly utilitarian view of nonhuman beings.  Instead, radical ecology promotes an ontological anarchy in which no entity is sovereign over any other, but each entity celebrates the absolute otherness of every other.

Using OOO, Morton calls for ecological awareness in the form of a “double denial of human supremacy.”[82]  This means that humanity deserves neitherontological priority northe privilege of distancing itself from other kinds of being.  OOO “provoke[s] irreductionist thinking…in which ontotheological statements about which thing is the most real (ecosystem, world, environment, or conversely, individual) become impossible.  Likewise, irony qua absolute distance also becomes inoperative,” as all events and entities equally constitute the same kind of thingly being.[83]  Morton’s ecological metaphysics is a vital extrapolation of OOO, and the echoes of radical ecology are clear.  Does that mean that ecological de-anthropocentrism indeed powers OOO from underneath, as an ideology?

I’d like to say that if it did, all the better.  But my argument is precisely that sound cannot be reduced to human experiences, actions, or constructions, ergo the question of sound’s thingness cannot be reduced to an ideological decision.  Arguably any attempt to decide the question on utilitarian, semantic, aesthetic, ecological, or ethical bases would not respond to the question but foreclose it on grounds that will probably turn out to be ideological in the light of critique.  Fortunately all humans, nonhumans, and relationships are things in Harman’s work.  OOO isn’t a matter of anthropocentrism or de-anthropocentrism but simply of things on equal ontological footing.  Hence to respond to the question of sound’s thingness with OOO isn’t justto say that we oughtto appreciate sound’s thingness, otherness, and durability because, for example, only such awareness can alert us to sound cannons’ dissembling rhetoric.  Such ethical reasoning is possible, even wholeheartedly welcome, but it’s just one of many insights that OOO facilitates.  To respond to the question of sound’s thingness with OOO really is to say something about reality.  At the very least, it reveals that sound demonstrates just how strange reality is.  From that observation, infinite questions follow.


[1]Joanna Demers, Listening Through the Noise (New York: Oxford University Press), 125.

[2]Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham: Duke University Press), 191.

[3]Theodor Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” In Essays on Music, trans. R. Leppert, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 288-317.

[4]LRAD Corporation, “LRAD for Public Safety Applications Fact Sheet.” Accessed 23 July 2014. http://www.lradx.com/site/content/view/323

[5]LRAD Corporation, “The Global Leader in Long Range Acoustic Hailing Devices: Public Safety.” Accessed 23 July 2014. http://www.lradx.com/site/content/view/254/110

[6]Christopher Small, Musicking (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1998), 8.

[7]Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear (London: Continuum, 2009), 13.

[8]Tara Rodgers, “‘What, for me, constitutes life in a sound?’: Electronic Sounds as Lively and Differentiated Individuals,” American Quarterly63(3): 510-511.

[9]Ibid., 512.

[10]Johannes Ritter quoted in Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance (Cambridge: Zone, 2010): 198-9.

[11]Hermann von Helmholtz, “On the Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music.” Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays, ed. D. Cahan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 46-75

[12]Erlmann, Reason, 210.

[13]Ibid., 211.

[14]Ibid., 332

[15]Graham Harman, Tool-Being (Chicago: Open Court, 2002), 226.

[16]Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 164.

[17]Brian Kane, Sound Unseen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 25, 16.

[18]Ibid., 36.

[19]Ibid., 16.

[20]Ibid., 19.

[21]Ibid., 34.

[22]Brian Kane, “The Music of Skepticism,” PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 2006, 131.

[23]Kane, Unseen, 53.

[24]Ibid., 36.

[25]Brian Kane, “L’objet sonore maintenant: Pierre Schaeffer, sound objects and the phenomenological reduction,” Organised Sound12(1): 22.

[26]Kane, Unseen, 40.

[27]Kane, “L’objet,” 22.

[28]Kane, Unseen, 40Adorno, In Search of Wagner, trans. R. Livingstone. (London: Verso, 2005), 74.

[29]Christoph Cox, “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism.” Journal of Visual Culture10(2): 147.

[30]Kane, Unseen, 38.

[31]Pierre Schaeffer, Solfège de l’objet sonore, trans. L. Bellagamba (Paris: INA-GRM, 1967), 11.

[32]Ibid., 15.

[33]Sterne, MP3, 190-191.

[34]Ibid., 189.

[35]Ibid., 193.

[36]Martin Heidegger, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. A. Hofstader (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 170.

[37]Harman, Tool-Being, 16.

[38]Ibid., 19.

[39]Heidegger, “The Thing,” 171-175.

[40]E.g., see Helmholtz, “Physiological Causes,” 52-53.

[41]Nina Eidsheim, “Sensing Voice: Materiality and the Lived Body in Singing and Listening,” Senses and Society6(2): 136.

[42]Cox, “Beyond,” 156.

[43]Casey O’Callaghan, Sounds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 25.


[45]Ibid., 26.

[46]Ibid., 58.

[47]Ibid., 27.

[48]Cox, “Beyond,” 157.


[50]Amie Thomasson, Ordinary Objects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105.

[51]Ibid., 114.

[52]Harman, Tool-Being, 294.

[53]Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), viii.

[54]Morton, Hyperobjects, 29.

[55]Ibid., 30.

[56]Citation omitted for blind review, 207-208, emphasis added.

[57]Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero, 2011), 12.

[58]Ibid., 19.

[59]Harman, Tool-Being, 2.

[60]Ibid., 1.

[61]Ibid., 2.

[62]Ibid., 227.

[63]Ibid., 220.

[64]Ibid., 171-174.

[65]Ibid., 4.

[66]Ibid., 2.

[67]Ibid., 169.

[68]Ibid., 67.

[69]Ibid., 68.

[70]Ibid., 145.


[72]Ibid., 220.

[73]Ibid., 23.

[74]Ibid., 64-65.

[75]Ibid., 260.

[76]Morton, Hyperobjects, 201.

[77]Harman, Tool-Being, 258.

[78]Morton, Hyperobjects, 44.

[79]David Cecchetto, Humanesis: Sound and Technological Posthumanis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 47.

[80]Ibid., 153.

[81]Ibid., 51.

[82]Morton, Hyperobjects, 19.