Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies

Thompson, Marie (2017). Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies. Parallax, 23(3) pp. 266–282.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13534645.2017.1339967


In this article, I consider how the revived interest in ontology within sonic theory connects to questions of race. Symptomatic of a broader ‘turn’ to ontology in critical thought, the (re)turn to ontology in sound studies is predicated on an ‘origin myth’ that disavows ‘old’ questions of culture, signification, discourse and identity, and promotes ‘new’ questions of materiality, affectivity reality and being. This origin myth is re-articulated with the introduction of Christoph Cox’s materialist sonic philosophy, which hears the ‘richest’ sound art as giving voice to ‘the nature of the sonic’. Building on Nikki Sullivan’s notion of white optics, I suggest that Cox’s ontology is predicated upon a ‘modest’ white aurality – a racialized perceptual standpoint that is both situated and universalizing. Just as whiteness is not simply an individual trait that is possessed, white aurality is not specific to or possessed by Cox; indeed, I suggest that in Cox’s work, white aurality is partly indebted to a particular engagement with John Cage: an engagement that amplifies an apparent distinction between the social and the ontological in Cage’s work, while muffling its political dimensions. The notion of white aurality is further exemplified through the comparison on two sound works: Lawrence English’s Airport Symphony (2007) which is heard to enact a move toward sonic generality; and Chino Amobi’s Airport Music for Black Folk (2016), which, apropos of Fred Moten’s notion of blackness as paraontological disruption, is heard as sounding the racialized violence of objecthood that often goes unheard by sonic philosophy’s white aurality.

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