Ways of Hearing. By Damon Krukowski, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2019, 136 pp. ($19.95 Paper)
Readers of a certain age may recall John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the early 1970s BBC TV series-turned-book that became a staple of college syllabi for the better part of a quarter century. Berger, a prolific painter, novelist, and critic who died in 2017 at the age of 90, set out in Ways of Seeing to take on the art history establishment — think Kenneth Clark’s Civilization — and what he called its “mystification” of its objects of study. The miniseries and print adaptation were a distillation of media theory for the masses, in which Berger argued that the widespread reproduction of artworks (as well as advertisements) ended up reconstituting the meaning of those pieces into something political and consumerist. For Berger, the media of visual reproduction — particularly TV and magazines — not just fundamentally altered but newly determined the message of what previously had been out of-the-way, and in many cases site-specific, works of art.
Damon Krukowski’s Ways of Hearing does for digital sound what Berger’s Ways of Seeing did for the reproduced image.
What Berger was saying wasn’t entirely new. Walter Benjamin, René Magritte, and Marshall McLuhan had expressed similar ideas before him. But he managed to popularize a version of their radical skepticism toward the reproduced image that would profoundly influence readers’ understanding of what they see and the forms in which they see it — a version, it should be noted, that has hardly lost its relevance with the rise of the image-saturated Internet and all of its memes and deep-fakes.
It is not an oversimplification to say that musician and writer Damon Krukowski’s Ways of Hearing does for digital sound what Berger’s Ways of Seeing did for the reproduced image. At the least, there are several important parallels between their efforts. Krukowski’s book is based on an excellent six-part podcast, the modern audio-based equivalent of the TV show that was the basis for Berger’s book. Krukowski’s title is an echo of Berger’s, and the design of Ways of Hearing closely follows the earlier text as well, as a small paperback with a large font, its pages filled with monochrome images credited vertically in the margins. Most important, Ways of Hearing argues for the same kind of skeptical approach to sound, or rather, digitally-reproduced or broadcast sound, that Berger had suggested should be directed toward the image. Krukowski wants us to question what we hear, as well as what we’re no longer hearing, in the era of digital audio.
Krukowski wants us to question what we hear, as well as what we’re no longer hearing, in the era of digital audio.
Ways of Hearing is among other things an account of how aspects of sound we might not value or even notice have gone missing in the shift from analog recordings and receivers to mp3s, cell phones, streaming services, and, yes, even podcasts. On its surface, this seems in keeping with the emergence of nostalgic trends in musical listening: the hipster resurrection, say, of LPs as sonically rich, visually cool artifacts of their (grand)parents’ youth. But Ways of Hearing is not a nostalgia trip. It’s a philosophical reckoning with what a fundamental media transition has meant for our ears and minds. To put this another way, Krukowski wants us to understand what has been left behind in the shift from analog noise to digital signal, not only in the technical sense of discarding discs and tapes for the compressed bits that have been shorn of arguably extraneous sounds, but also in a humane sense, where the absences register as lost opportunities in shared experiences.
While each chapter takes up a specific angle on this shift, all of them ruminate in one way or another on the ways that the acts of recording music and listening to recordings have become less social and more isolating. In one of the most engaging chapters for this reader, Krukowski says many perceptive things about noise, or rather its disappearance in the earbud era. He conducts an interview in Radio City Music Hall with historian of science Emily Thompson, who points out that Radio City, where everything on stage was intended to be miked, with extraneous echoes absorbed into fabrics and special plaster, embodies the modern (20th century) reduction of noisy sound to pure signal. As if they were tuning in a station on the radio to listen to a particular show, the audience heard at Radio City just what they came to hear, without reverberation and the interference of noise.
Krukowski goes on to suggest that earbuds are the contemporary version of this phenomenon, a direct shot of digital signal, or “an auditorium without walls,” as he puts it. Of course, this auditorium has an audience of one, that listener who moves through the streets to their own beat, often oblivious to the actual noises of the city around them — cars, sirens, birds, dogs, voices. We all know the sight of the headphone-clad pedestrian who, lost in their own private sonic space, always seems a step away from crossing the street into oncoming traffic. Headphones turn our own skulls into echo chambers, and for Krukowski, the metaphor of the echo chamber, so dominant these days in this landscape of fake news and Trumpian propaganda, sums up the self-absorption and loss of collectivity that the earbud facilitates.
Perhaps the most obvious question this book provokes is: why did this need to be published at all? The original podcast, after all, would appear to be the perfect form for the subject of audio in transition. What more could a (silent) book achieve? As it turns out,
Ways of Hearing anticipates this question and provides an answer, courtesy of Emily Thompson, in an “Interlude” in between the first and second of Krukowski’s chapters. Here, Thompson cleverly reflects on the status of the text itself. Reading the podcast, Thompson writes, “resolve[s] the paradox produced by” it because when we read it, with our ears unplugged from the earbuds through which the digitally-rendered version entered our own heads, we allow ourselves to be open to whatever natural or mechanical sound or voice disturbs or interrupts or situates us in real time. Experiencing this podcast on the page allows us to “reclaim the lost noise of the digital soundscape and maintain [our] place in the social networks that sustain us all.” More than just an elegant justification for the appearance of Ways of Hearing in book form, this also serves to vindicate the distinctive sonic and social value of the printed word, that tenacious throwback of a medium that remains a way of hearing with and against the sounds of our modern noisy world.
John M. Picker teaches in the Comparative Media Studies program at M.I.T. He is the author of Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford University Press) and many articles and book chapters in the field of sound studies, including, most recently, “Soundscape(s): The Turning of the Word” in The Routledge Companion to Sound Studies. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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