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Sounding the Limits of LifeEssays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond$

Stefan Helmreich

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780691164809

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691164809.001.0001

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(p.183) Life, Water, Sound Resounding

(p.183) Life, Water, Sound Resounding

Sounding the Limits of Life

Stefan Helmreich

Sophia Roosth

Michele Friedner

Princeton University Press

TO RE-SOUND A QUESTION ANIMATING this volume: If life, water, and sound are at once abstractions as well as empirical phenomena, how do the formalisms and materials through which they are apprehended—computer simulations of evolution, formulae for tracking the travel of tsunamis, cochlear implants—matter, both in everyday and in limit circumstances? As I hope has become clear, the material and formal structures through which life, water, and sound are known shape these objects as abstractions and empirical phenomena both.

Abstractions such as life, water, and sound, I have suggested, become imaginable as such only through formalisms, systematic accounts—mathematical, diagrammatic, simulational—that seek to capture phenomena in the world so that these might be operated upon symbolically and conceptually. Recent calls in the humanities and social sciences to attend to “materiality”—the stuff of the world as full of nonhuman, alinguistic agency1—are, I maintain, impossible to entertain without first accepting (where one might rather historicize, or even contest) those formalisms that support such abstractions as, say, for life: reproduction, recombination, evolution; or, for water: purity, the freezing point, the variation of earthly tides; or, for sound: the notion of the wavelength, the decibel, or timbre.

“Life” has come in and out of focus for scientists in this book through the visualizations of computer simulation, through wrangling with the question of what gives “form” to “life,” through classifying and reclassifying organisms, through Petri dish modelings of vital process, and through seeking to scale the life of single cells to the life of the global biosphere.2 These are all attempts to settle “life” into a set of forms through which it might be known, though each also changes what scientists will take as the relevant material or substance through which life might be recognized or modeled. In some cases, “life” is revealed quite explicitly as a paradoxically unsettled abstraction, a form that therefore has an unsettled material or empirical quality—as with work in astrobiology, which seeks both to know and to remain agnostic about the ultimate definition of life.

The abstraction of “water” finds itself maintained as well as undone in the essays here as scientists seek to model it virtually in Artificial Life simulations, (p.184) in models of tsunamis, or in Google Ocean. Water is mined for its symbolic affordances—and therefore pushed to its conceptual limits—as social theorists seek to call analogically upon water’s form and materiality to theorize a world of global “currents” and “flows.” Or as sound engineers seek to mimic water’s effects in audio media.

“Sound” turns out to be an abstraction supported by such formalisms as accounts of its speed in different media (air, water), mappings of its vibratory form onto the technology of the cochlear implant, mathematical models of sound envelopes and timbre, and descriptions of its phenomenology as wavelike. And, as with “life” and “water,” “sound” is not what once it was. Take, as one recent example, the 2008 retrieval of sound from mid nineteenth-century phonautograms, visual inscriptions of sound vibration meant to be seen, and not, at the time they were made, heard. The most noted example is an 1860 rendition of “Au Clair de la Lune,” which was etched as a vibratory tracing on soot-covered paper—a tracing made some seventeen years prior to Thomas Edison’s more famous audio playback of himself singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” What Patrick Feaster has called “paleospectrophonic” methods for “educing” sound from such phonautograms force the question of what a “sound recording” is and was (does the intention of the recordist matter?)—and of what “sound” as an historical phenomenon could be.3

This last example also demonstrates that when abstractions are realized in particular media, the media make a difference to how the abstractions are understood. In “After Math,” the historian of science Stephanie Dick provides examples of how mathematical manipulation operates differently when it is managed as a sequential set of symbols on a page than when it is instantiated in the electromagnetic memory of a computer, a rematerialization accompanied by what she calls “reformalism.”4 To be sure, it is not that “material” as such, in some preformal way, forces one or another formal representation by necessity, but rather that forms change with the affordances of materials, themselves encountered and created, in an iterative spiral, to offer up particular formal properties.5 And so on, in crinkling interference patterns.

One way to support my claim about how the formation, deformation, and reformation of abstraction and formalism guide perceptions of the material world would be to offer a series of close case studies in biology, marine science, and acoustics—something akin to existing cultural historical studies of, say, the genetic “program,” the idea of the ocean current, or the notion of “loudness”—studies that show how the concept in question gathered persuasiveness and reality as well as, later, began to wobble or fall apart.6 Another way would be to offer something similar to those accounts anthropologists have delivered for such abstractions as “the family,” “the market,” or “the state,” which have zeroed in on changing definitions of marriage, mathematical models of derivative investment instruments, or the organization of national bureaucracies.7 The essays in Sounding the Limits of Life have sometimes taken a similar tack. But I (p.185) have also frequently favored another approach. Abstraction is based not only on those variously formatted and materialized formalisms that make assumptions explicit, operational, and organized; abstraction is also an everyday activity layered into the traffic of contingent human relations across a buzz of domains. And I have been particularly interested in those moments when abstractions and formalisms break, forcing reimaginations of the phenomena they would apprehend.

And this is why I have found sounding a useful analytic in unifying these essays. As I noted at the outset, sounding as fathoming, resounding, uttering, being heard, conveying impressions, suggesting analogies, repeating, and echoing is a good tool for getting at the empirical world, which is abloom with resonances and dissonances across domains. Sounding is also, I have intimated, an appropriate idiom for investigating that which is not yet fully known, that which people discover only through a kind of auditing that can change the very substance to which it listens, that can create new echoes, new reverberations.

If theory, from the ancient Greek theorein, “to look,”8 is about looking at phenomena—perhaps seeing them through formalisms or even looking at phenomena through one another—sounding operates in a different register, producing reverberation, resonance, transduction. When I make that claim, I am keen not to be heard, however, as simply rescuing “sound” from obscurity, lifting it up from a status as some sort of slighted, inferior cousin to “sight”; that hierarchical ordering is a cliché, one that brings into the modern age medieval rankings of the senses that had vision closest to God, sound in second place, and the more earthly senses of touch, smell, and taste following behind (the last two involved putting parts of the world in one’s body, an invitation to sin …).9 As Veit Erlmann suggests in Reason and Resonance, there is a minor key Western tradition that has hearing and listening—resonance—as a path to reason.10 This is a tradition worth reanimating—and tweaking. If the visual idiom of “reflection” posits that the mind is a mirror of the world, a Cartesian entity detached, objective, and apart, “resonance” suggests a participation in the world, a moving in sympathy, an empirically attuned embodiment. In other writing, I have called for replacing “reflexive” anthropology with “transductive” anthropology, an anthropology that listens through and across (and that also unwinds the ear-centrism of much sound studies, positing vibration as only one vector of intersensory connection).11 Drawing from the media critic Jim Drobnik, it is important, too, to “listen awry,” paying attention to sound out-of-joint (acousmatic, educed, even violently disruptive) and to the odd auditory hallucination (a phenomenon not so uncommon; after all, unless you are a hearing person reading this aloud, you may be having one right this second).12

Watery meanings of sounding have also been important. I have kept them in mind to keep in awareness the fact that the medium through which one investigates things in the world is significant. When oceanographers seek to understand, say, deep-sea organisms, they cannot do so without figuring out how (p.186) fact and artifact often come conjoined in the data they collect; the medium of water needs to be theorized not just as an ambient surround, but also as a medium through which living and knowing happens.13 Much of this book seeks to do what could be called theory underwater, not merely theorizing underwater things, but subjecting theory to unfamiliar conditions as well—of pressure, saturation, waterlogging—seeing how it deforms as it merges with the medium it seeks to describe.

What emerges from such an enterprise for such concepts as life, water, and sound? I think it reveals them to be not quite concepts at all. Compare what W.E.B. Du Bois, in his 1940 Dusk of Dawn, wrote of race: “Perhaps it is wrong to speak of it at all as ‘a concept,’ rather than as a group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies.”14 To be sure, racial and racist social orders have often operated precisely through the making of concepts, categories, and types, often seeking to freeze “race” into a fixed thing that is available to governance, and more often than not into a principle for the hierarchical ordering of putatively distinct human groups that are imagined to differ in essence one from the other in forms bodily, perhaps biological. But as Du Bois saw, all this conceptual work was crosscut by contradiction, as definitions of race were subject to a “continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced [;] … The basis of race distinction was changed without explanation, without apology.”15 Though with different historical anchors—and with, at least in many of these essays, a less fraught and terrifying politics (though not always)—“life,” “water,” and “sound” are something like that: pointers to contradictory forces, facts, and tendencies that unfold in historical and political time. As “Life Forms: A Keyword Entry” suggests, biologists’ definitions of life have changed as theories of vitality and evolution have morphed, as biopolitics have brought different units—cells, bodies, populations—into governance, and as biologists have sought alternately to embrace and shun a metaphysics of life. As “Nature/Culture/ Seawater” argues, the forces, facts, and tendencies that make seawater what it is involve the shifting proofs and politics of ecologists, fishers, oil companies, and more. And, as “Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies” observes, sound—particularly reproduced sound (in phonographs, telephones, mp3s)—has over the last century been shaped with deafness and disability as its conditioning, enabling, and marginalized Other, placing “hearing” within the contradictory forces, facts, and tendencies that have shaped what will count as abled and disabled bodies.

Life, water, and sound, then, are both like and not like the three forces, facts, and tendencies tagged by the title of the anthropologist Franz Boas’s 1940 Race, Language, and Culture.16 Where those categories were all exclusively concerned with the “human,” the terms I treat here are by no means always coterminous with human bodies or processes. Sounding the Limits of Life can be read as a symptom of where some scholars are heading in anthropology today, taking on ahuman entities and phenomena as objects of anthropological investigation: multispecies collectives (including such untraditional subjects as insects, (p.187) fungi, microbes), water, air, oil, electricity, light, rocks, waves.17 Like the sound-studies scholar Douglas Kahn’s Noise Water Meat, which examines the place of water and flesh in modernist musical composition, this book is curious about the other-than-human substances that traverse cultural production. And like Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, which asks how boundaries between animal, machine, and human are being reconfigured by the life and information sciences, this book seeks to ask how the boundaries around bio-ecological and sensory objects like life, water, and sound have been breached. The reader may have noticed that this book’s essays, like the three-worded titles of those books just described, often feature three parts or principles that either track, offer, or disturb a chronology or a classification. There is usually one in the three that does not fit, that demonstrates a crisis of thinking, a need to move beyond received categories. Though I have made “sound” a master term for this book, it is also the odd one out, the one that is not quite right, not quite centered. It is not meant as synthesis to a thesis of “life” and antithesis of “water,” but is perhaps a prosthesis for listening to them anew….

At stake in spotlighting abstractions and nonhuman phenomena is an attempt to make sense of how naturalcultural worlds are now being created. Marx had it that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”18 Not only should one no longer speak of “men” in a species-generalizing mode, nor, of course, in that infuriating gender-specific casting, but it seems, too, that it would be useful to amplify the kinds of circumstances, agents, and processes understood to be in the mix of world-making. The Anthropocene, that new geobiopolitical term proposed to call attention to how anthropogenic processes are modulating the planet, is perhaps a term too anthropocentric. Sea-level rise may make this the Hydrocene—or it may push scientists away from the fetish of the Greek neologism altogether. Or even away from the fetish of articulate language.

Think, then, of these pages not just as soundings—nor of this epilogue as a simple re-sounding—but as an instance of listening backward through a kind of reverse reverb. Reverse reverb is an audio effect in which a reverberation, or echo, precedes or anticipates a sound to come. A less common name is preverberation. Preverberations can be produced in audio recordings using a simple trick: by recording a sound playing backward while adding an echo or reverberatory effect to it, and by then reversing the audio record of that process so that it sounds like the sound is heralded by its own echo (consult songs by Led Zeppelin, My Bloody Valentine, or Janelle Monáe for examples). The essays in Sounding the Limits of Life offer possible preverberations of how life, water, and sound may morph, conceptually and actually. In the age of transforming life forms, the rumble of rising sea levels and the premonitory sizzle of a warming planet may serve as a reminder that the problem of the twenty-first century will be how to fashion a sounding line into the future, how to go about sounding the limits of life. (p.188)


(1.) A couple of works in the new materialism that I worry take the physical world too much in terms of canonical science are Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(2.) Examples from the wider world of biology could be given: “Life” is captured for cellular biologists as they diagram the form of the Krebs cycle (a chemical reaction in cells that makes energy out of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) or of meiosis (the division of cells into sperm and eggs). “Life” can be captured for population biologists through the mathematical formalism of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (a hypothetical state in which gene frequencies remain constant in a population).

(3.) Patrick Feaster, Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980–1980. Atlanta, GA: Dust-to-Digital, 2012). And see Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama, “The Recording That Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Karin Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 544–560. More recent paleospectrophonic work has rendered nineteenth-century graphs of heartbeats into sound. See Ron Cowen, “The Echoes of Hearts Long Silenced,” New York Times, December 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/science/the-echoes-of-hearts-long-silenced.html?_r=0, accessed January 21, 2015.

(4.) Stephanie Dick, “After Math: (Re)configuring Minds, Computers, and Proof in the Postwar United States.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014.

(5.) Consult Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), which reports on how different computer systems, for example, differently handle the “rounding off” of numbers depending how their storage is organized—a formal/material decision that examples the process I point to here.

(6.) See, for example, Evelyn Fox Keller, The Century of the Gene (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), which tracks how the abstraction of the “gene” as hereditary particle moved from a theoretical speculation to a material substantiation (in DNA) to, recently, a concept no longer able to capture the complexity toward which it pointed. On ocean currents, see Eric L. Mills, The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet: How the Study of Ocean Currents Became a Science (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2009). On loudness, Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (New York, Faber and Faber, 2009).

(7.) See, e.g., Jane Collier, Michele Z. Rosaldo, and Sylvia Yanagisako, “Is There a Family? New Anthropological Views,” in Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, ed. Barrie Throne and Marilyn Yalom (New York: Longman, 1982); Vincent Antonin Lépinay, Codes of Finance: Engineering Derivatives in a Global Bank (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Ilana Feldman, Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

(8.) A lovely elaboration of this etymological connection can be found in James Hamilton-Paterson, The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds (New York: Random House, 1992).

(p.280) (9.) Sterne, Audible Past; Steven Connor, “The Menagerie of the Senses,” lecture delivered at the sixth Synapsis Conference, I cinque sensi (per tacer del sesto), Bertinoro, Italy, September 1, 2005, http://stevenconnor.com/lectures.html, accessed November 24, 2014.

(10.) Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

(11.) For an example of sonic anthropology that operates something like this, listen to Argus Carlyle and Rupert Cox, Air Pressure (Greuenrekorder, 2012), field recordings of aircraft flying over farms next to Tokyo’s Narita airport. For a less human-centered recording, Ernst Karel, Heard Laboratories (and/OAR, 2010).

(12.) Jim Drobnik, “Listening Awry,” in Aural Cultures, ed. Jim Drobnik (Toronto, ON, YYZ Books, 2004), 9–15.

(13.) Compare “medium-specific theory” in Melody Jue, “Proteus and the Digital: Scalar Transformations of Seawater’s Materiality in Ocean Animations,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9, no. 2 (2014): 245–260. Jue extends her thinking about water as media to consider watery life (particularly the vampire squid) as media; see Melody Jue, “Vampire Squid Media,” Grey Room 57 (2014): 82–105. Compare also the notion of “underwater media,” in Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham. NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

(14.) W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1940), 133.

(15.) Ibid., 99.

(16.) Franz Boas, Race, Language, and Culture (New York: Free Press, 1940).

(17.) The multispecies ethnography bibliography has grown vast, but some key data points are Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003) and When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Celia Lowe, Wild Profusion: Biodiversity Conservation in an Indonesian Archipelago (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Sarah Franklin, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 2007); Eduardo Kohn, “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): 3–24 and How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Heather Paxson, “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (2008): 15–47; Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Timothy Choy, Lieba Faier, Michael J. Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka, and Anna Tsing, “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds,” American Ethnologist 36, no. 2 (2009): 380–403; Marie Paldam Folker, Mette Nordahl Svendsen, and Lene Koch, “Lifeworlds of the Pig: Towards a Cartography of Porcine/Human Entanglements,” in Investigating Human/Animal Relations in Science, Culture and Work, ed. Tora Holmberg (Uppsala: Centrum för Genusvetenskap, Uppsala Univaersitet, 2009), 142–153; Matei Candea, “ ‘I Fell in Love with Carlos the Meerkat’ ” Engagement and Detachment in Human-Animal Relations,” American Ethnologist 37, no. 2 (2010): 241–258; essays by Eva Hayward, Augustin Fuentes, Jake Kosek, and Celia Lowe in S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, eds., “Multispecies Ethnography,” special issue, Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4 (2010); (p.281) Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia (New York: Pantheon, 2010); Hoon Song, Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); essays in Julie Livingston and Jasbir K. Puar, eds., “Interspecies,” special issue, Social Text 29, no. 1 (2011); Laura A. Ogden, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); essays in “Knowing Insects,” special issue, Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (2013); Alex M. Nading, Mosquito Trails: Ecology, Health, and the Politics of Engagement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); John Hartigan, Jr., Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); essays in “Critical Perspectives on Multispecies Ethnography,” special issue, Critique of Anthropology 34, no. 1 (2014); Natasha Myers, “Conversations on Plant Sensing: Notes from the Field,” NatureCulture 03 (forthcoming).

(18.) Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, excerpted in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), 594–617, at 595. (p.282)