Q&A: Stefan Helmreich on Cyborg Sound

Posted on September 4, 2014 by Anya Ventura

MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich examines how biologists think through the limits of “life” as a category of analysis. His Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (University of California Press, 2009) is a study of marine biologists working in realms usually out of sight and reach: the microscopic world, the deep sea and oceans outside national sovereignty. Helmreich’s newest research concerns the cultural circulation of such abstractions as “water,” “sound” and “waves.” As the organizer of the “Sounding” section of this fall’s symposium, Seeing / Sounding / Sensing, Helmreich sat down with us to discuss Alvin Lucier, cyborg sounds and the growing field of Sound Studies.

We know you’ve written extensively about underwater sounds, and also collaborated with MIT Visiting Artist Florian Hecker on the “Chimerizations” project. Can you tell us a bit more about your research, and how you first became interested in sound studies?
I became especially curious about the possibilities of thinking through sound after a submarine dive I joined in the three-person research submersible, Alvin. Descending 2,000 meters to underwater volcano fields about two hundred nautical miles off the Pacific Northwest coast, I became fascinated not only by what I saw outside my tiny underwater window, but also by the resonating soundscape of the sub — the tracking pulse sent out from Alvin to its host ship Atlantis, the steady metronome of SONAR “pings” from transponders on the seafloor, the pilot’s mp3 player… It seemed to me that a sense of being immersed in sound contributed to the sense we passengers had of being immersed in the sea. All this immersion — sonic, watery – was highly technologically mediated, which led me to think of the passenger-submarine complex as a cyborg. That then led me to ponder what I came to call cyborg sound, sound sensed and relayed through technologies of transduction and feedback. Florian Hecker’s work, which tweaks psychoacoustic models to produce unexpected listening experiences, seems to me a kind of cyborgian enterprise — it’s really great to think about how hearing operates both as a technical and cultural phenomenon, precisely because Hecker seeks to to turn his listeners’ auditory common sense inside out.

What, in your opinion, are the most exciting developments in Sound Studies right now? What new sets of questions or problems might the symposium raise to add to this growing field?
Sound Studies has over the last fifteen years or so enjoyed a steady growth in interest across the disciplines, from anthropology, to science and technology studies, to music, to media studies, and beyond. I think one of the most significant connections the field has lately made is with disability studies and, maybe counterintuitively, with Deaf Studies. Technologies of sound reproduction (phonographs, telephones, mp3s) turn out, over the last century or so, to have been shaped by hearing persons’ attempts to ameliorate or remedy the condition of deafness. One of our symposium speakers, media studies scholar Mara Mills, is doing innovative work on how many technologies of sound relay and reproduction originated on the pretext of helping deaf persons, while also using them as guinea pigs for technological innovations ultimately created for hearing persons. The history of sound has an unwritten history of discrimination against the hard-of-hearing written into it. What we think of as “human” hearing is haunted by the way it has been investigated through cyborgian technologies (such as the cochlear implant) as well as the way it has been imagined with respect to “deafness,” considered as a kind of “other” to hearing.

Alvin Lucier was one of the first composers to sonify brainwaves in his 1965 piece Music for a Solo Performer. A combination of scientific experiment and musical composition, the piece allowed Lucier, through technological mediation, to translate his internal subjectivity into something tangible, “outside” the head. In your mind, what kinds of questions does such a work present for today’s scholars and cognitive scientists?
As an anthropologist, I’m interested in how so many of us have come to imagine that “subjectivity” — a quite recent and historically particular notion, very much bound up in ideas about “humanness” — can be attached to specific physical processes, especially since it seems to me that some of those physical processes (the rise and fall of electrical potential in the brain, for example) are, in their way, quite intriguingly inhuman. I think that Lucier’s piece actually forces us to query the ways we understand the relation between brains and selves. After all, rendering audible brainwaves is not to reveal something obviously meaningful, but to reveal something quite alien. I suspect that music theorist Brain Kane, who will be in dialogue with Lucier at the symposium and who writes on acousmatic sound — sound without a clear origin — will have a lot to say about the space between what we (hearing people) hear and what we imagine to be the “origin” of those sounds. Music for Solo Performer, after all, originates not only in the mind of the performer, but also in the technological apparatuses of detection that permit it to be staged at all!


1. Stefan Helmreich. Photo: Heather Paxson.