Sonic Education and Reeducation
Sensory experiences elicit, provoke, stimulate. The multisensory experience of food triggers memories, emotional responses, thoughts, and actions (as the examples in "Food, Comfort, Sensation" demonstrate). But it’s also important to recognize that sensory encounters educate. In First Bite, for example, Bee Wilson writes about how our food preferences are largely determined by repeated exposure to particular kinds of foods and to the environments in which we learn to eat those foods. If you grow up in a home that is always full of pre-packaged treats and you rarely see any fruits or vegetables in the kitchen, or if you live in a food desert with little access to fresh fruits or vegetables, you probably won’t develop a penchant for asparagus or mangoes. That said, reeducation is always possible. Wilson notes, “our responses to food are remarkably open to influence, and remain so throughout our lives” (12). This is true of all sensory experiences. As long as we’re alive, we never stop experiencing the world through our senses; when our environments change and we get exposed to new things, we are constantly being educated and reeducated to have positive or negative associations with various tastes, smells, textures, visuals, and sounds.
All sensory experiences educate. However, because sound played a prominent role in the multisensory dining project—a project that was assigned in a course about sound—it seems useful to elaborate on sound’s educational powers in more detail. During the multisensory dining event, students and participants were learning about sound as a compositional and rhetorical medium, and the project also prompted them to think about how sound itself is pedagogical. Let’s explore this latter form of sensory pedagogy in more depth.
Sound teaches bodies. Our sonic education begins before we are fully formed human beings. “We are born in and of sound,” Dominic Pettman writes. “Our first prenatal experience is overwhelmingly aural: we become embodied and enfleshed within the squelches, rumbles, and pulsing thumps of the mother’s body. Even before we have ears, we can ‘hear’ through our skin. (Indeed, this capacity continues into adulthood.)” (Pettman 1). We learn to associate the sounds of the womb—as well as its other sensory qualities such as warmth and darkness—with safety and comfort. This is why parents are encouraged to buy products that attempt to recreate womb-like experiences for restless newborns. Further, from the beginning of life, sound teaches us who we are: “[A]fter leaving the womb, we learn who we are by the sound of our name and the names of others. We respond to sonic stimuli, like good Pavlovian subjects” (Pettman 1).
Significantly, the learning that occurs via sound does not happen in a single incident. Sound teaches us through repeated encounters. We get used to the sounds of the womb during our (more or less) nine-month stay there, and it is only after we hear people say our own and others’ names many times that we begin to construct a sense of identity in relation to others. Steven Feld’s term “acoustemology” is instructive for thinking about the role of repetition in sound’s educational power. Feld explains, “Acoustemology conjoins ‘acoustics’ and ‘epistemology’ to theorize sound as a way of knowing. In doing so it inquires into what is knowable, and how it becomes known, through sounding and listening” (12). Importantly, acoustemology is relational. Feld writes, “Knowing through relations insists that one does not simply ‘acquire’ knowledge but, rather, that one knows through an ongoing cumulative and interactive process of participation and reflection” (14).
Consider, for example, how you learned to modulate the volume of your voice in different spaces and scenarios. As anyone who has been told as a child to use their “inside voice” knows, it is clear that we do not always pick up on sonic cues as children. At least at first, the voice we use when playing outside and the voice we use in a library are not very distinct. Over time we are conditioned—and sometimes trained explicitly by adults, as the video below demonstrates—that certain situations and venues demand certain sonic behaviors and responses from us.
It’s the cumulative experiences we have with sound as well as our physical interactions with various environments and situations that inform our ways of sonically knowing and being. Often, our sonic education is simply a result of living in and engaging with the world.
There are also occasions, though, when we participate in a self-imposed sonic education. Our personal sonic habits can teach our bodies to respond in particular ways. For example, before I lived with my (now) husband, I was not a high-maintenance sleeper. As long as I had a pillow and a blanket, I could sleep almost anywhere. But Dan is a finicky sleeper who has struggled with insomnia all his life. He needs to have very specific conditions—perhaps another version of a womb-like environment—in order to sleep: blackout curtains, a certain configuration of pillows, and most importantly, a large, loud fan blowing directly at the bed. We have an industrial-size fan in our bedroom that creates an aggressive whoosh of white noise. After several months of sleeping in these new-to-me conditions, I noticed that I had trouble sleeping elsewhere. A lot of trouble. When I am a guest in someone’s house or in a hotel room with minimal white noise, the comparative silence of these rooms is deafening. Nothing cues my body to relax or get sleepy.
Yet, my bodily reaction to the fan sound is something that, if I really wanted to, I could change by replacing the fan sound with another form of sleep conditioning (e.g., by repeatedly forcing myself to sleep without the assistance of the fan, or by learning to get sleepy with an ambient noise app on my mobile phone instead). However, other types of “bodily lessons” are much more difficult to unlearn. The lasting pedagogical force of sound is most apparent and dramatic in the context of war and violence. For example, as Americans are reminded by news reports every year around the Fourth of July, the sounds of fireworks can trigger PTSD in veterans.
In Listening to War, J. Martin Daughtry examines the toll that the sounds of war have taken on veterans and civilians. He explains that while most people are aware that fireworks have consequences for veterans (though very few places offer alternatives to fireworks), many other less obvious sounds affect those who have been immersed in war-zone soundscapes:
Beyond the obvious sounds that resemble weaponry (firecrackers, backfires, slamming doors, construction site noises, etc.), other more subtle sounds can trigger panic or an unwanted memory. Something as ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous as a car accelerating to pass you on an American highway can sound a lot like the beginning of a vehicle-borne IED attack in Iraq, for example. (100)
While many soldiers with PTSD are triggered by similar sounds, not everyone exposed to sounds in war zones responds in the same ways after or even during combat. Again, responses to sound are learned and highly situational. For example, the soldiers Daughtry spoke to differentiated between various helicopter sounds:
For service members who could distinguish one helicopter from another, the sound of the Apache, an attack helicopter, meant that missile fire could be on the way. The sound of a Chinook might signal that supplies were forthcoming. Medical evacuations took place on Black Hawks or Chinooks, so those sounds could trigger sympathy if you were not wounded, relief if you were. (43)
The service members’ reactions to sounds depended on their previous associations with particular sounds, as well as the bodily states they were in when they heard those sounds (e.g., whether they were wounded or not). Their responses to sound were context-specific and determined by cumulative experiences.
It is also crucial to understand that much of what sound teaches our bodies happens on an unconscious level. While the severity of our reactions to sound will certainly depend on the situation—it would be absurd to compare my experience with the aggressive fan sound that has made it difficult for me to sleep anywhere but home to the sonic PTSD of service members and civilians in war zones—regardless of a sound’s potency, decision-making and control do not usually factor into reactions. Daughtry continues, “Before we can decide how to react to a sound, we are subtly swaying to its rhythm, like a marionette on a string” (164).
In other words, before our brains have a chance to recognize or interpret the e/affects sound is having on us, our bodies have already responded. As Brian Massumi observes, “the skin is faster than the word” (25). Sound teaches us at the level of the body—often before we have time to intellectually process what is happening.
This is not to say that we can never respond consciously or critically to sonic experiences (or other sensory experiences). While it is not always possible to understand how sound affects us in the moment, we can learn to listen—or become more sensitive—to the ways that sounds are educating us over time. As I discuss in “Sensational Pedagogy,” cultivating this kind of sensitivity was one of the pedagogical goals of the multisensory dining event. To my mind, this event represented one forward movement for students and participants in a longer trajectory of becoming attuned to the ways sound works on and in our bodies. Having students compose the soundtracks for the event was an exercise that was intended to sensitize, as Bruno Latour would say (315).
Further, the experience of the ambient soundtracks, or soundscapes, also served to heighten students’ and participants’ awareness of sound in other environments—like restaurants and coffee shops—as I describe in "After-Dinner Debrief." In fact, according to Salomé Voegelin, this kind of heightened awareness is one of the aims of soundscape design in the context of sound art. Voegelin notes, “Soundscape compositions work to make the listener aware of his acoustic environment, to extend auditory awareness, and stretch the processes of the listener's own sonic engagement” (31). In addition to the auditory awareness Voegelin mentions, I would add that the ambient soundtracks (or soundscapes) in the multisensory dining event heightened students’ sensory awareness because it asked them to experience and consider sound in relation to other senses. The holistic approach to sound design used in the multisensory dining event made explicit the many ways our bodies are educated (and reeducated) by multisensory experiences throughout our lives. It is worth repeating: sound does not educate in isolation; all forms of sensory education are contextual, multisensory, and ecological.