Blog Post

Sound, Listening, Affect, Multimodality (if you like these words, read on)

By way of introduction...

I’m a 4th year Ph.D. student in the English Department (rhetoric and composition) at the University of Pittsburgh. This is my second year as a HASTAC Scholar, and I’m really happy to be back. Last year I made a lot of connections with super smart and interesting people through the HASTAC program, and I got to host a fun and provocative forum about sound and listening called “Feel the Noise.” Participating in HASTAC last year also had a major impact on the way I started thinking about my dissertation on sound and multimodality, which is now in its early stages. I’m hoping to find even more people to exchange ideas with this year. 

In short, my dissertation attempts to revise and expand conventional notions of listening, which tend to emphasize the ears and brain while ignoring the rest of the body. Exploring modes of listening that do not rely solely upon the ears and brain will both disrupt and enrich the ways that listening is presently considered in rhetoric and composition discourse, and create new connections between listening and multimodal composing practices. Drawing on theories of multimodality, embodiment, and affect, I seek to understand the ways in which various constellations of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production.

The quick and dirty chapter outline (excerpted from my prospectus) goes something like this:

Note: This is a rough idea of what the dissertation will eventually look like, but it is a constant work in progress, which is to say that it will be in a perpetual state of change as I continue to read and write. That said, the core ideas are laid out here, so if we have some research interests in common, I’d love to hear from you!


Chapter 1: From an Ideology of Hearing to Multimodal Listening

This chapter will address how listening has been and continues to be discussed in rhet/comp. It will serve as an introduction to “multimodal listening,” a concept I will offer as a way to understand listening as a full-bodied event. It will also situate my project within extant listening discourse and explore current conceptions of multimodality. I will be relying on theorists and philosophers such as Gunther Kress, Benedict de Spinoza, and Elizabeth Grosz in order to contextualize the key concepts of multimodality, affect, and embodiment, which will serve as important threads that connect the diverse extra-discursive listening practices in the chapters that follow. Questions that will guide my analysis in this chapter include: How has listening been discussed (or not) in rhet/comp scholarship? How has listening been discussed (or not) across the disciplines? What does listening have to do with multimodality, affect, and embodiment?


Chapter 2: Resonating Chambers: Evelyn Glennie, Affect, and Multimodal Listening

This chapter’s main focus will be on the career of Evelyn Glennie, a Grammy award-winning deaf percussionist (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing last summer). Glennie, who uses her entire body as an instrument to channel vibrations, exemplifies how touch, sight, and sound converge in listening experiences, challenging normative understandings of deafness. Questions that will guide my analysis of multimodal listening practices: What are multimodal listening practices? What is the role of vibration in listening? What is the relationship between sound and affect, and how does this relationship figure into the listening process? What can bodily listening practices offer theories of listening and/or multimodality?


Chapter 3: DJs and Multimodal Listening

Though DJ-ing has been a popular site of interest for rhet/comp scholarship in recent years, I will be taking a different approach in this chapter. Whereas others have discussed DJs as composers. I will be focusing on DJs as listeners who are keenly attuned to bodies, rhythms, and affects. I will be concentrating specifically on DJs who market themselves as performance artists (Girl Talk, DJ Shadow, and lesser-known regional DJs) because it is these DJs who best illustrate the integration of technical, material, and affective elements in multimodal listening. DJ Culture offers a dynamic paradigm for understanding the embodied dimensions of listening and its role in contemporary compositional practices because of its emphasis on technics and performances that are contingent upon the bodily intensities of both the DJ and the audience. Questions that will guide my analysis of multimodal listening in a DJ-ing context include: How do DJs cultivate multimodal listening habits? What is the relationship between multimodal listening and composing in DJ-ing practices? How does the use of digital technology shape or change multimodal listening and composing practices for DJs?


Chapter 4: Acoustic Design: Listening Bodies and Spaces

The first section of this chapter will focus primarily on The World Soundscape Project (WSP), established by R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s at Simon Fraser University. Soundscapes, according to Schaefer, are combinations of sounds that emerge from or are produced by an immersive environment. While studying soundscapes, Schaefer and his team of researchers were most interested in what they call “acoustic ecology,” or the relationship between living things and the sounds of environments (Schaefer, The Soundscape). The second section of this chapter will examine the kinds of multimodal listening and composing techniques employed by acoustic designers—technicians who intentionally construct and manipulate particular soundscapes. Acoustic design demands attention to all of the elements that compose an environment, as well as how these elements interact and depend upon each other to create a desired ambience. In other words, acoustic designers must consider how visual, spatial, and sensory details amplify or interfere with the affects they are trying to produce via sound. Because acoustic design actually attunes and integrates sound with other features of the landscape/environment—color, space, texture, light—multimodal listening in this space involves much more than sound. Acoustic designers must practice an embodied kind of listening that involves fully multimodal sensory engagement. Questions that will guide this investigation include: What does studying soundscapes or acoustic ecology reveal about multimodality, listening, embodiment, and affect? What is involved in the construction of an acoustically designed space? What is the function of the listening body in a soundscape or an acoustically designed space? How might acoustic design inform theories of sound and listening in rhetoric and composition?


Chapter 5: A Tale of Two Soundscapes: The Story of My Listening Body

This creative-critical chapter will take the form of a digital audio composition that entwines narrative, field recordings, and engineered sound. The narrative will feature a representation of my personal experience moving from Cullowhee, North Carolina, a quiet town nestled in the Smoky Mountains, to the noisy, industrial city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2008. More specifically, it will trace the ways in which two different soundscapes drastically (and literally) affected my listening body. This project will reflect ideas about listening from previous chapters, and serve as an extension of the soundscapes discussion in Chapter 4. Questions that will guide this composing process include: What does an exploration of acoustic ecology in my own life reveal about my personal relationship with sound? How have the sonic environments that I have inhabited affected my body or affective state? What conclusions can I make about the ways in which my own body listens? 


Conclusion: Multimodal Composition, Listening, and Bodily Pedagogies

Finally, the concluding chapter will synthesize ideas from the previous chapters regarding listening, extra-discursivity, and multimodality. This chapter will make explicit connections to how we might rethink listening and sound in a rhetoric and composition context, specifically in relation to multimodal engagement and production. I will also explore how extra-discursive and discursive listening practices inform each other, particularly in multimodal composing contexts. I will demonstrate that the discussions of listening and extra-discursivity that emerge from my dissertation are crucial to the teaching and practice of multimodal composition specifically because multimodal composition involves sound and other extra-discursive, sensory elements that are often overshadowed by the alphabetic features of texts. Questions that will guide this concluding chapter include: Why is multimodal listening significant? Now that listening in an extra-discursive context has been examined, what happens when we bring language back into the listening situation? How do the discursive and extra-discursive aspects of multimodal engagement and production work together? How might implementing multimodal listening practices into a rhet/comp curriculum alter notions of listening and/or composing?



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