Response to Rasmussen and Corbin

02 Feb
I will respond mostly to the piece on bells, but wanted to also talk a little bit about the Rasmussen piece, especially the chapter about the Islamic soundscape.

Anne Rasmussen’s piece about the Islamic soundscape illuminated the difference between (and I know I’m being completely reductive) the logical, written, visually driven Western tradition of the private citizen silently reading a newspaper in a cafe (Habermas), and the oral, participatory nature (heavy with religious overtones) of Islamic culture of “musicking” and constant sound. Rasmussen actually brings it up herself when she says, “Orality is a fundamental aspect of Muslim cultures both historically and in contemporary times in ways that, I submit, are difficult for Westerners, who are conditioned by what I have called ‘the prestige of literacy,’ to understand.” (Rasmussen, 72) Hence, even through reading this work, my Western-entrenched brain kept thinking about how foreign it feels for a society to be so immersed in a culture of communal aurality and ramai. In Taiwan, as Rasmussen mentions, ramai is like the Mandarin expression renau, which translates literally into “hot ruckus.” Which does have positive connotations in the language.

The idea of aurality being performed is also one that is familiar in the West, although not in the lived everyday as it seems to be for Islamic cultures, but for people in the public’s eye – rock bands, politicians (who could forget the Scream That Ended A Presidential Campaign in 2004?), public speakers, and, of course, preachers. But, whereas in the West, these performances generally make up those who seek to reinforce the hegemonic framework that already exists through their performative acts, Islamic soundscapes perform a sort of resistance, “a force that runs against the grain of government-mediated messages and the ever-increasing intercession of Western sources.” (Rasmussen, 68) The West has this as well – but is usually seen as disruptive to the soundscape, rather than part of the soundscape.

Alain Corbin’s piece on bells really applies not only to the historic use of bells in 19th Century France, but allows the reader to ruminate on how sound, and the ability to make other people hear the sound someone makes, or the sound someone has power over, is a form of identification within society. It not only defines that someone’s position within society in relation to everyone else, but it also defines the identity of those who have to endure said sound. In Corbin’s case, the sound is the ringing of bells. In modern days, as we have discussed earlier in this class, sound and/or noise have a political economy and social hierarchy aspect to it. Someone who lives under the flying trajectory of planes landing in airports has a very different socioeconomic status than someone who lives far from the “noise” of civilization, nestled in their own little sound-insulated pocket.

The part of Corbin’s piece that very much resonated with me was the section on bells and time, and how “the complex organization of auditory signals in the nineteenth century along with peoples’ many different experiences of time” (Corbin, 190) signaled the start of a subsumed power structure that had to do with “quantitative time” that was gradually imposed on people. For a while, the power lied with the “winder” of the clock. Whoever winds the clock, or rings the bells, holds power over the structure of time in a society. Bells aurally announced time, and announced the passage of time (hence “dictat[ing] the meaning of delay, the sense of being ahead of behind, and the forms assumed by haste. (Corbin, 191)) Personal watches, which Corbin mentions, then, was a way in which time is almost democratized. Everyone can keep their own time (provided the can, of course, afford to buy a personal timepiece), rather than having bells aurally announcing time and imposing it, though sound, on everyone within the space the sound can reach, which creates its own spatial boundaries. On the other hand, though, watches follow a structure of time that becomes a sort of constructed truth. Even if you have a watch, there is a universality to the measurement of a second, a minute, an hour, that has been pre-defined and constructed as truth. That being said, bells, with their omnipresent resonance, is the ultimate imposition of the passage of time, and imposition of time upon those living within its structures of constructed, quantification. 

The consciousness of the flow of time leads to other questions that may not be so easily answered. Before this imposed construction of time and a consciousness of temporal flow that was imposed upon a community aurally by the bell (or other means, like the town crier, as Schafer mentions), how did people perceive time? Did they perceive it as something that passes, something that has increments? How did people make sense of aging, or growing, or days and months? Did they even think about age as a quantifiable thing? Was their quantification measured by suns and moons, and seasons? Did they ever think about time on the micro-level we feel? Do they feel so viscerally as we do the race against time as we sit in our car in traffic, hoping against hope that we will not be late to class, as the digital clock in our car ticks off another minute, prompting a curse under our breath? Were people ever early? Late? Did these feelings of relativity to time exist in human consciousness before its measurements and increments were imposed by the Powers That Be in a community?
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Posted by on February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized


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