Media and Semantics

Monday, April 14th, 2014 by dparker90

Along with Renee and Kyle, I attended the Stephanie Strickland / Eric Baus event last Friday at Counterpath Press in Denver. While Renee has already blogged about her experiments with Baus’ “reduced listening” methodology, I want to reflect on the relationship between sound and content – and media and semantics more broadly – that his talk brought to light.

As Renee describes, Baus demonstrated a three-tiered listening method: 1) causal listening, or determining where a sound originates; 2) semantic listening, or determining what the sound means; and 3) reduced listening, or focusing on the traits of the sound independent of meaning. His talk placed special emphasis on reduced listening in order to pick up features of sound that we tend to filter out. Much like Kittler’s description of writing as a medium that filters out everything but itself, Baus explained that semantic listening leaves us unaware of what’s happening at the level of pure sound. Just as the camera picks up everything within its view, reduced listening helps us pick up everything else that’s going on in a recording, including background noise, subtle vocal qualities, and other minutia. 

And yet, I’m not convinced that the relationship between sound – the medium, if you will – and semantic content is as clear cut as Baus would have us believe. I agree that reduced listening helps us pick up on features of recordings that might otherwise go unnoticed and has the potential to enhance our listening experiences, but I don’t think this listening method adequately accounts for what I argue to be the complex relationship between medium (sound, in this case) and content. When I asked Baus about the role of semantics in reduced listening, he explained that once you’ve thoroughly investigated the sonic environment you incorporate meaning back into the sound; now that you’re fully aware of the nature of the sound, you can think about how it interacts with meaning. However, I’m not prepared to agree that sound and meaning “interact;” in poetry and music, isn’t meaning made of sound? I think we often get stuck in these Cartesian material/mental binaries where you can supposedly pull one from the other, or in this case, take meaning out of sound and vice versa. In contrast, I’m convinced that the medium is the message, and that the message wouldn’t exist without the medium. Maybe it’s less systematic than Baus’ tiered listening system, but I’m more interested in listening to the way sound makes meaning, and how meaning, in turn, shapes the way we listen to sound. What I’m getting at here is that media/content are not so easily extricable from one another, and that truly active listening engages both at once.    

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