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Sonic Philosophy

By Christoph Cox

Philosophical aesthetics suffers from a peculiar arrogance toward its object of inquiry, an arrogance that the “non-philosopher” François Laruelle has termed “the principle of sufficient philosophy.”1 By this awkward phrase, Laruelle cites the pretension of philosophy to elevate itself above any object or discourse in order to offer a philosophy of it: a philosophy of science, of art, of music, etc. For millennia, philosophy has conceived itself as the “queen of the sciences,” claiming the ability to reveal what its object cannot reveal about itself: the essence, nature or fundamental reality of that object. Philosophy thus dominates its object, subjecting it to philosophical rule. Convinced that its object is fundamentally ignorant about itself, philosophy is little concerned with what that object has to say on its own behalf.

How might one challenge this domination, allow the object to speak, put it on equal footing with philosophical thinking, permit it to generate concepts rather than solely to be subject to them? In the case of music and sound, what would it mean to think sonically rather than merely to think about sound? How can sound alter or inflect philosophy? What concepts and forms of thought can sound itself generate? These are the questions I want to address here. My aim is to track some of the ways that philosophy has or could be inflected by sound to produce not a philosophy of sound or music but a sonic philosophy.


Sonic philosophy begins not from music as a set of cultural objects but from the deeper experience of sound as flux, event and effect. Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche are exemplary figures here, as both present not a metaphysics of music but a musical metaphysics. For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, music directly figures the world as it is in itself, the primary forces and movements that drive all natural change, tension and destruction. In a passage celebrated by Nietzsche, Schopenhauer writes: “Music [. . . ] expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world, the thing-in-itself to every phenomena [. . . . It] gives the innermost kernel preceding all form, or the heart of things.”2

For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, music and sound are philosophically important because they present us with an ontology that unsettles our ordinary conception of things. In philosophy, ontology is the sub-discipline that investigates being, determining what there is or what sorts of things exist. We ordinarily operate with an ontology that begins and ends with what J.L. Austin called “moderate-sized specimens of dry goods,” the objects of our everyday experience: apples, chairs, trees, cars, etc.3 This ordinary ontology extends to include larger objects such as mountains or stars and can accept scientific objects such as sub-atomic particles, provided that they are taken to be tiny versions of ordinary things-stable, solid and durable, though very small. Indeed, when we speak of “matter,” we tend to think solely of solid matter. (Few, I think, would take liquids, gases, or plasmas- water, air or fire, for example - as paradigms of matter.) This ordinary ontology privileges the senses of sight and touch; or rather, the senses of sight and touch determine this everyday ontology. The invisible, intangible and ephemeral objects (so to speak) of smell, taste and hearing seem to have only a shadowy existence relative to the standard of the ordinary solid object, whose presence is guaranteed by eyes and fingers and enshrined in “common sense,” which names an entrenched hierarchy of the senses rather than some common agreement among them.

Jana Vinderen at Gloppen, Norway April 28th, 2007, recording for Lydgalleriets project Sleppet. Photo: Jørgen Larsson.

Jana Winderen at Gloppen, Norway April 28th, 2007, recording for Lydgalleriets project Sleppet. Photo: Jørgen Larsson.

But surely sounds, odors and tastes exist, and surely they are as material as sticks and stones. Sounds, to take the example that concerns me here, set eardrums aquiver, rattle walls and shatter wine glasses. Indeed, sound is omnipresent and inescapable. Lacking earlids, we are forever and inescapably bathed in sound, immersed in it in a way that we are not immersed in a world of visible objects. An attention to sound, then, will provoke us to modify our everyday ontology and our common sense conception of matter. Sound lends credence to a very different sort of ontology and materialism, a conception of being and matter that can account for objecthood better than an ontology of objects can account for sounds.


Music has always posed an ontological problem, for (unlike the score or recording that attempts to capture it) it is intangible and evanescent but nonetheless powerfully physical. This ontological problem is compounded by sound art, which, from its very origins in the late 1960s, challenged the ontology of objects and, in particular, the modernist work of art. Though clearly an outgrowth of the Cagean tradition in experimental music, sound art emerged within the milieu of postminimalist practices in the visual arts fostered by Robert Morris, Robert Barry, Michael Asher, Barry LeVa and others whose emphasis on process, multi-sensory experience and immersion defied the autonomy, medium-specificity and purely visual or optical conception of art characteristic of high modernism.

Postminimalism’s challenge to these features of modernism opened two different paths for artistic practice. Art could pursue the “dematerialization of the art object”4 by way of the concept, the idea, language and discourse; or it could pursue an expanded conception of matter extending beyond the limited domain of ordinary, middle-sized, visual and tactile objects (paintings and sculptures, for example), a notion of matter understood as a profusion of energetic fluxes. While a number of artists saw these two paths as parallel rather than divergent, conceptual art tended to follow the first path, sound art the second. In so doing, conceptualism was bolstered by a philosophical and critical program insistent that our access to the real is fundamentally discursive, thus dismissing any notion of non-discursive perception, materiality or reality. During the 1970s and ‘80s, this critical program came to dominate the visual and literary arts, offering powerful, sophisticated and effective analyses of images and texts. By contrast, the provocation posed by sound art was not pursued philosophically or theoretically. As a result, sound art was left without a robust theoretical basis or mode of apprehension and was thus relegated to a minor status, at best an adjunct to music, at worst a naïve or retrograde incursion into the visual arts. Thus, while conceptual art became a dominant concern for art historians and critics and a pervasive influence on the art of the past half-century, sound art remained (until recently) a minor and underground mode of art making that attracted very little critical or art historical analysis. It is no coincidence, I think, that the emergence of powerful realist and materialist philosophies since the late 1990s has been paralleled by a renewed interest in sound.

Sound art’s greatest forefather, John Cage, invited us to think of sound and music not as bounded by musical works but as an anonymous flux that precedes and exceeds human contributions to it. This conception of sound flows throughout the history of sound art, from Max Neuhaus’ Times Square, La Monte Young’s Dream House and Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire to Christina Kubisch’s Electrical Walks, Francisco López’s trilogy of the Americas and the work of contemporary soundscape artists such as Chris Watson, Jana Winderen and Toshiya Tsunoda.

If we accept this Cagean conception, sound constitutes one flux among many, joining the profusion of flows catalogued by Manuel De Landa in his great book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, which conceives all of nature and culture as a collection of flows-flows of lava, genes, bodies, language, money, information, etc.-that are solidified and liquefied, captured and released by way of various processes that are isomorphic across these various domains.5 Yet, as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche pointed out, the sonic flux is not just one flow among many; it deserves special status insofar as it so elegantly and forcefully models and manifests the myriad fluxes that constitute the natural world.


Sound, then, affirms an ontology of flux in which objects are merely temporary concretions of fluid processes. This flux ontology replaces objects with events, an idea nicely demonstrated in a book that provides another exemplary instance of sonic philosophy: Casey O’Callaghan’s Sounds.6 Sounds are intangible, ephemeral and invisible; but, O’Callaghan shows, they are nonetheless real and mind-independent. Sounds persist in time and survive changes to their properties and qualities. Thus, they can’t be treated as secondary qualities (such as colors or tastes) that are relative to their observers; nor are they the properties of their sources, which cause or generate them but nonetheless remain distinct and separate. In short, sounds are not tied to objects or minds but are independently existing entities.

This is exactly what Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrete and one of the progenitors of sound art, aimed to show in his analysis of the objet sonore: the sonorous object considered independently of its source, an entity to which audio recording draws attention but that ordinary experience also routinely encounters.7 For Schaeffer, the sonorous object has a peculiar existence distinct from the instrument that produces it, the medium in or on which it exists, and the mind of the listener. Sounds are not qualities of objects or subjects; rather, they are ontological particulars and individuals. Yet Schaeffer’s language of the “sonorous object” misses the mark. For sounds are peculiarly temporal and durational, tied to the qualities they exhibit over time. If sounds are particulars or individuals, then they are so not as static objects but as temporal events.8

Chris Kubick, Hum –Human, digital video, 13 mins. Courtesy of the artist.

Chris Kubick, Hum –Human, digital video, 13 mins. Courtesy of the artist.


This ontology of events is unsettling, for it proposes that happenings, becomings and changes exist independently of the subjects and objects that produce or undergo them. To put it another way, it gives priority to the verb, which is no longer conceived as subordinate to the noun. This is exactly the view proposed by that sonic philosopher Nietzsche, who argues that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; the ‘doer’ is only a fiction added to the deed-the deed is everything.”9 Or as Henri Bergson put it:“[t]here are changes, but there are underneath the change no things which change: change has no need of a support.10

If sonic philosophy liberates the deed from the doer, becoming from being, the verb from the noun, it also liberates the effect from the cause. This ontology of the effect is richly developed by Gilles Deleuze.11 Inspired by the Stoics, Deleuze distinguishes between two kinds of entities. In the first place, there exist bodies that have various qualities, act and are acted upon, and inhabit states of affairs in the world. Yet, in addition to bodies, there exist incorporeal events or effects that are caused by bodies but differ in nature from them. Like Nietzsche, Deleuze asks us to think the ontology of the verb as distinct from that of the noun (bodies) and adjective (qualities): the verb as a pure becoming independent of a subject. Such becomings are best captured by verbs in the infinitive (”to cut,” “to eat,” “to redden,” etc.), which have no subject and are bound to no particular context.12 They simply describe various powers of alteration in the world, powers of becoming that are variously instantiated.

As continuously varying fluxes that are separable from their causes and maintain their own independent existence, sounds exemplify this ontology of events and becomings, and they do so in two senses. In the first place, sounds are not punctual or static objects but temporal, durational flows. They thus accord with an empirical account of events and becomings as processes and alterations. Beyond this empirical sense, sounds are also events and becomings in another sense, a “pure,” “incorporeal” or “ideal” sense. We saw that sounds are not only “events” but “effects,” results of bodily causes that are nonetheless distinct from those causes and that have an independent existence of their own. But sounds are effects in another sense as well, in the sense in which scientists speak of the “Kelvin effect,” “Butterfly effect” or “Zeeman effect.”13 Such descriptions refer to recurrent patterns of possibility, diffuse multiplicities that nevertheless have a coherence or consistency. The isolation or individuation of such effects is very different than that of a thing, substance, subject or person. Deleuze calls them “haecceities,” which names a mode of individuation characteristic of events: a wind (the mistral or sirocco, for example), a river, a climate, an hour of the day, a mood, etc.14 “Effects” of this sort arise historically (hence their frequent attribution to the scientist who isolated them) but are recurrent, forming relative invariants that are not reducible to their empirical instantiations.

This notion of “effect,” independent of cause, has a broad and important set of usages in the world of audio. Musicians use the term to refer to the distinctive timbral and textural modulations (reverb, fuzz, echo, flange, distortion, etc.) produced by electronic-signal-processing devices known as “effects units.” Sound researchers Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue have adopted this list of “effects” and expanded it beyond the domain of music to generate a catalogue of 82 “sonic effects” (effets sonores) that characterize everyday urban soundscapes: attraction, blurring, chain, dilation, fade, etc. Though inspired by Schaeffer, Augoyard and Torgue abandon Schaeffer’s “object” in favor of Deleuze’s “effect” in an effort to describe the soundscape not as a field of discrete entities but as a flux of haecceities, recurrent but transitory auditory modalities and intensities.15

An even more extravagant expansion of the notion and number of auditory effects can be found in the archives of “sound effects” employed by the radio and film industries since the 1920s. Ontologically and aesthetically, the “sound effect” is a peculiar entity. Generally anonymous, unattributed to an author or composer, these sounds are produced for incorporation into radio plays, films, TV shows and video games. Yet they float free of these concrete instances, constituting a general reserve capable of use in very different productions and contexts. In films, they get attached to particular objects and situations in the image track to provide a convincing auditory complement, but they are very often generated from sources and events that have little to do with the objects or situations that receive them. For instance, sheets of metal produce the sound of thunder, and frozen romaine lettuce generates the sound of broken bones. Moreover, sound effects are often combined to generate new sound effects that diverge further from their components.

These ontological and aesthetic peculiarities of sound effects have been explored by a number of artists. Working with commercial sound effects libraries, the duo Chris Kubick & Anne Walsh present these effects in their virtual state as detached sound files indexed by titles that are at once singular and generic (”Amphibian Morph 4 From Rock to Flesh,” “Metal Squeal Huge 2.R,” “Power Buzz, invisible .R”). The sounds themselves likewise manifest this combination of the singular and the generic. Though generated by particular sources and causes, they are capable of signifying and functioning more broadly. Full Metal Jackets (2005), for example, is a sound sculpture composed of 32 small speakers scattered down a 30-foot wall. A computer draws randomly from an archive of 500 sound files documenting falling bullet-shell casings and sends them to the speakers via eight different channels. At the base of the wall and facing it, a monitor lists in real time the file names, which carefully detail the type of casings and the material surfaces on which they fall. Yet, sonically, the installation is remarkably tranquil and non-violent, like a spare, aleatory percussion composition or a cascade of rain. One’s attention is drawn to the timbral and textural differences between the sounds rather than to their real-world or cinematic causal referents.16

Kubick & Walsh’s sculpture To Make the Sound of Fire (2007) similarly highlights the disjunction between source, sound and function. Simply consisting of a Plexiglass box containing a few sheets of crumpled wax paper (used by Foley artists to generate the sound of fire), the silent piece invites viewers to imagine the sound such a material might make and to compare it with their silent mental conjurings of “the sound of fire.” The infinitive title highlights the role of this and all sound effects as haecceities or singularities, elements or processes to be drawn into proximity with others in the incarnation of actual filmic entities.

Kubick’s recent project Hum Minus Human (2012) nicely brings together several features of the sonic ontology I’ve been describing.17 A single-channel video, the project presents a nearly randomized sub-catalog of drones collected by searching through a commercial sound effects archive using the keyword “hum” and subtracting those results that turn up “human” sounds. The piece freely combines the sounds of nature, culture and industry-light transformers and cicadas, arc welders and bumble bees (etymological source of the word “drone” in English)-that form the sonic backdrop of our lives. In one sense, the “minus human” in the title simply describes a search function. But it has a broader significance as well, attuning us to that Cagean, Nietzschean, Schopenhauerian sonic flux that precedes and exceeds human being.

This conception of the sonic flux-and the ontology of events and effects it affirms-is strange. It unsettles our ordinary ways of speaking, sensing and conceiving. A philosophical aesthetics that approaches sound and music with a conceptual apparatus already in place will reject it or be deaf to it. Yet, sonic philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Schaeffer, Cage, O’Callaghan and Kubick & Walsh do philosophy otherwise. Beginning from a fascination with sound, they follow it where it leads, encountering a strange world in which bodies are dissolved into flows, objects are the residues of events, and effects are unmoored from their causes to float independently as virtual powers and capacities.


1. See, for example, François Laruelle, “A Summary of Non-Philosophy,” The Non-Philosophy Project, ed. Gabriel Alkon and Boris Gunjevic (New York: Telos Press, 2012), pp. 25ff. In the context of aesthetics, see Photo-Fiction, a Non-Standard Aesthetics, trans. Drew S. Burk (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012), pp. 3ff.

2. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 262-263, quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, p. 16.

3. J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 8.

4. See Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

5. Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone, 1997).

6. Casey O’Callaghan, Sounds: A Philosophical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

7. Pierre Schaeffer, “Acousmatics,” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 76-81.

8. See O’Callaghan, Sounds, pp. 11, 26-27, 57-71.

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, p.13, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1992), p. 481.

10. Henri Bergson, “The Perception of Change,” The Creative Mind (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), p. 122. Emphasis in the original.

11. See, for example, Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 4ff; Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), pp. 63-66; A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 86ff; and What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 21, 126-7, 156ff.

12. See The Logic of Sense, pp. 182-185.

13. See The Logic of Sense, pp. 7, 70, 181-182.

14. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 261; cf. Dialogues, pp. 92ff, 151-152.

15. Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue, ed., Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds, trans. Andra McCartney and David Paquette (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005). On Deleuze’s notions of event and effect, see pp. 10, 154n16. Deleuze briefly discusses “sound effects” as instances of incorporeal events in The Logic of Sense, pp. 7, 70, 181-182.

16. The project is documented at <http://www.doublearchive.com/projects/full_metal_jackets.php> (accessed June 17, 2013).

17. An excerpt can be found at <http://www.socalledsound.com/projects> (accessed June 17, 2013).

Christoph Cox teaches philosophy and art theory at Hampshire College and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. He is the author of Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation (1999) and co-editor of Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (2004). Cox has curated exhibitions at the Kitchen, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and other venues. His essays have appeared in October, Artforum, the Journal of Visual Culture and the Journal of the History of Philosophy, among others.

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