All About Sound – a Reflection (Helmreich, Schwartz)

I felt an ominous sensation looming in my imagination as I began reading Helmreich’s ethnography on oceanographers. The deep dark abyss Helmreich ventured into, riding inside a small deep-dive submarine, seemed terrifying to me. I wouldn’t worry about sea creatures but I would constantly be worried about the ‘what if’ in case the vessel’s technology failed. This was the first instance sound played a reassuring role in this ethnography, I imagined during the descent the steady rhythmic ping sound of the submarines sonar system, ensuring there were no nearby obstacles to collide with during what is otherwise a plunge into complete darkness. I particular enjoyed Bruce’s (one of the oceanographers on board the sub) sentiment that the noises indicate to him the sub is somewhere rather than nowhere, supported in a web of sounds. This indicated to me the reality of the situation and how important sound is in this context. There was also a call from the ship above the surface down to the submarine during its descent, and even though it only detailed some trivial business aspects about a grant, it dawned on me that this was the only means of communication with the surface world left miles above. It was also interesting to note the difference sound waves or vibrations act in water and air and the methods necessary to decipher meaning from the strange echo like sounds into a human understanding of their origin.

Schwartz wrote about a much broader world of sound we are incorporated into, and really made me become more aware of the excessive sound around us. Even as I write this I am now acutely aware of the constant crashing and banging sounds emanating from the new subdivision under construction essentially in my backyard, that until recently was dismissed from my immediate thought. Schwartz compares the difference in blocking out excess light in our world to diluting excess sound and likens quiet to a desired commodity. I am immediately reminded of the “peace of mind” that comes with relaxing quiet. I was also interested to read the comparison Schwartz draws of sound through the ages where no matter what context there was always an influx of sound in any society whether our bustling city streets today or the busy marketplace’s of ancient Rome, Schwartz paints a picture of an overload of sound, or noise pollution as an unavoidable circumstance of civilization. Lastly I would like to mention a shift in spirituality and noise explained in the article. Schwartz writes about the gonging of church bells as a celebration of religiousness, but as the excess noise of industrialization and city became more commonplace a shift to a silent spirituality where one could almost meditate and reflect became more important, and the church bells were silenced. I was reminded of this concept of silent reflection in my own childhood where much against my will I had to go on religious retreats in elementary school where silence was embraced as a means of spiritual connectivity. I never felt the likes of this however, and would use the quiet time to let my imagination run wild about the much more interesting and fulfilling things I could be doing in the snow covered forest we were sitting on benches “praying” in.

The sound bytes accompanying this weeks readings I found very relatable to the readings, the first song I listened to Taximan, had rhythmic beeping and electronic backing music that reminded me very much of the rhythmic pinging and static sounds I would expect from the deep-dive submarine. The video link to the Gamelatron reminded me of the spiritual essence of sound and music hit on in the Schwartz article, only in this context a new means to produce and develop the music was being used in the form of robotics. This represented to me a bridging of the new technology and “sounds of industry” and the old fashioned music of religiosity such as the chiming of church bells. If the noise of industrialization is what silenced the church bells in the first place it is very artistic and thought provoking to see industrialization and mechanical modernity be the very thing chiming them once again.

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A poetic response of the senses

What is true embodiment?

I see, hear, think, and feel

but without a connection is my experience real?

I distinguish physical touch from feeling with my soul,

so should I avoid the rock that can provide the shock to make my experience whole?

I am a product of my environment,

my senses dulled, and my world neatly organized and filed,

will I ever wake up with a true sense of smell, I would need if I were feral and wild?

I smell like old spice, manufactured bottled bliss,

My girlfriend is happy and seems to adore this,

but underneath, a pungent animal likely exists.

I wouldn’t mind stinking if that’s what was real,

I’ll say “open seselelame!” and  connect what I feel,

to my mind, my spirit, my body, and senses,

I’ll embody it all and kick down these sensory fences.

Reflection 2 (Guerts, Classen, and Howes)

I find it very interesting to investigate how one can objectively conduct field research on the senses without including their own preconceptions or interpretations. They seem to be almost an immediate and natural response that we would be experienced the same cross culturally but this is clearly not the case. Guerts hits on this point well when she states the distinction Western cultures make between sensation; the direct touch and physical contact, and feeling in regards to emotional connection. She then compares this to the Anlo-ewe culture where there is no distinction between the two but rather a whole embodiment of sensation and experience the Anlo call seselelame. What makes her fieldwork most interesting to me is that she does incorporate her own experiences into her ethnography opting to actively try to understand and experience seselelame. This seems like a very difficult task to me, because we would not share the same understanding of seselelame, my favourite part of the article was Guerts’s description of the difficulty to even explain seselelame in our language, with her own and a linguist’s translation essentially reading ‘feel-feel-at-flesh-inside.’ Guerts does do a much better job explaining this notion and the merit of this article to me was the awareness of a more wholesome experience of the world around you.

This concept of the wholeness and connected sensory body was very interesting to me in regards to Western culture where we sharply divide the senses and pay particular attention and emphasis to certain ones, in my opinion vision primarily. That is why I found Classen’s article to be particularly interesting as it shows the emphasis that was placed on smell and the olfactory in the West and I became interested in why the importance would swing from one sense to another over time. Classen’s article deals with religion and “the odor of sanctity.” to me this connection between the sweet smelling, clean scent being tied to holiness and purity makes perfect sense in the timeframe it existed in. Good smells represented cleanliness and therefore good health whereas rot and foul smells could represent sickness and death. The distinction and preference for the sweet scents seems obvious to me. This article reads as a history lesson veiled between the supernatural of religiosity and a historical account of certain religious figures, and at each opportunity the emphasis placed on smell in these records is pointed out to the reader. I was most interested to read that the use of smells still persists within Christianity today, with baptismal rites still using perfumed oils to anoint the soul and scent it as a blessing.

Of course to have these good smells there must be bad ones too and it was interesting to have my own preconceptions of bad smells reinforced in the reading. Imagining hell I would think of fire and brimstone and the strong smell of sulfur and rot, and this abysmal setting was mirrored in an account of Hell as a rotten marsh or ditch filled with vermin and a terrible stink. These notions of cleanliness and holiness contrasting stench and illness are also reinforced by the nuns and missionaries helping the poor and describing complete numbing of the senses as a result of the foulness of the smells of these people. Many of these nuns came up with their own ways to mask the scents to be able to continue their work.

As I mentioned earlier I was interested in learning how the change from the emphasis on the olfactory to vision in Western society came to be and so I was delighted to see the title of Howes’ article “The Decline of Smelling.” Howes argues the transition comes as a result of general hygiene and change to societal norms, no longer are streets full of horse manure, urine etc. and people began recognizing the importance of deodorants as a result of class demarcations between labouring classes and the bourgeoisie. This ‘olfactive revolution’ created new norms of cleanliness and covering up of odors that led to what the article refers to as “a land of olfactory blandness and sameness.” The distinction between the emphasis on sweet scents and holy odors depicted in Classen’s article could not be more different than this hiding of the olfactory Howes writes about. As a result of shifting modernity dictated by class rulings it is more apparent to me how this shift from an emphasis on smell turned into a suppression of smell.

Lab 1 – Working Your Senses

Upon being handed this object the first  thing I experienced were its acoustics. The object had six silver moving parts that slightly dangled away from what I determined to be the objects core component or body. I grasped one of these silver objects and realized it was hollow with a small bead (perhaps metal) freely moving inside and I noticed the hard metal ridge where the two parts of the silver ball joined together to encase the rolling bead. Surely these balls are the source of the percussion I hear upon moving my object. On one side of the object are raised letters that read ‘Bambina-Japan’ and something about a copyrighted music company. Does this mean I am holding an instrument? I wonder. The bright orange colouration is different than any classical percussion instrument I am familiar with and upon seeing the opposite side of the object I am shocked to see a lazy eyed gaze staring back at me! Every time I shift the object in my hands the creatures eyes shift in a careless, googly-eyed fashion. Now I am paying attention to what my perception recognizes as a face. In bright red colour the eyes are framed in what appears to be the face of a monkey; two inset nostrils are visible to the eye and indented to touch, and just below them is a deep wide groove of a smile separating the upper and lower lip of this musical ape. Even ears are recognizable, round in shape and sticking out from the objects orange frame, just above the height of the eyes. This frame itself leads to much speculation, it is very smooth to the touch and has no small parts of its own, but instead grasps firmly to wire handles that secure the six metal balls. This monkey is an entertainer and one well suited to its task. A circular frame body with one curved spine in the centre that resembles a pot handle offers a good grip to any hand small enough to fit within its diameter. I am now confident in my conclusion that Bambina the bright orange disfigured monkey is an entertainer of children and takes his job seriously. I now realize if Bambina is truly meant for a young child that he will inevitable end up in the child’s mouth, and so in the pursuit of knowledge, I prepare to taste Bambina. The spectacle of the moving bells attracts my attention first and I sniff tentatively at them. At first they seem odourless  but upon further nasal inspection I detect the faint acrid smell of metal that reminds me of shop class in highschool. Bambina’s cool metal balls in my mouth seem almost refreshing at first, but quickly warm to my touch as the almost sour tangy taste of the metal quickly dissipates. His plastic components, although aesthetically pleasing, offer no reward to taste and smell and so I revert to my feelings that Bambina the disfigured monkey mainly appeals to vision and most intriguingly to sound. I say I am most intrigued by his sounds because I immediately had to figure out where his non-uniform rattling noises emanated from, and then after, how they were created. Had I been younger I would be mystified by his percussive song and deem him a god of my crib, sent from on high to entertain me with his magical silver balls.

Desjarlais, Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision (reflection 1)

It is obvious based on the title that Desjarlais places the emphasis of his research on sight and the importance of vision within the Yolmo wa people of Nepal. What I found compelling about this ethnography however, was how quickly Desjarlais moves away from the functionality of eyesight in pursuit of vision’s significance within Yolmo culture. The Yolmo wa place considerable importance on vision, likening the act of seeing something as a projection outwards, as a beam from a flashlight casts out and illuminates its target, giving it form and reason, the eye too can “touch” what it is observing. This varies greatly from my understanding of vision, wherein the eye seems to be a receptive organ reacting to stimulus. After reading this ethnography however, my own perceptions have changed as I found a great deal of relatability among certain Western norms and those of the Yolmo wa. One area in particular dealt with women and the effect of the gaze in public. Desjarlais wrote about the young women always being aware of the gaze on them by neighbours, older family members, and men, all observing the woman’s conduct and appearance, for a number of reasons. Some of these were honour bound and many dealt with marital possibilities. I found myself reminded of Western culture, where I have always seen women present themselves at their best, spending hours on makeup etc. before even leaving home, where they then carry themselves with the utmost poise and grace, surely aware of the public gaze. What I found to be one of the most meaningful uses of vision was in communication. Desjarlais wrote about the power of eye contact as it conveys benevolence and affection between the Yolmo. Even full romantic courtship can occur through an understood flirtation of the eyes with minimal spoken dialogue. I was amazed to read this and immediately saw a connection in Western society that holds similar merit. Whereas different looks and eye contact can convey so much meaning in Yolmo culture, different tones in dialogue can drastically change the meanings and sentiments of speech in Western culture. I am reminded of a scene in the movie BASEketball, where the two protagonists are feuding, and argue by only using the word ‘Dude.’ It is through inflection and tone that their feelings are portrayed and the audience innately understands what is happening on screen. After having read this ethnography I am pleased to have found a greater awareness of my own vision. To the Yolmo wa, the ability to see goes far deeper than a fundamental understanding of eyesight, it is a quintessential part of their culture.