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Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life

by Brandon LaBelle
Continuum, New York, NY, 2010
304 pp., ills. 28 b/w. Trade, $90.00; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 9781441157249; ISBN: 9781441161369.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


The central argument of Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life is that sound provides a significant model for thinking about and experiencing the contemporary condition. In exploring this thesis, Brandon LaBelle, an artist and writer working with sound and locational identities, notes at the outset, "the seemingly innocent trajectory of sound as it moves from its source and toward a listener, without forgetting all the surfaces, bodies, and other sounds it brushes against, is a story imparting a great deal of information fully charged with geographic, social, psychological, and emotional energy. . . . My feeling is that an entire history and culture can be found within a single sound; from its source to its destination remaining specifically tied to a given context, as a deeper expressive and prolonged figure of culture" (xvi).

Combining research on urban theory, popular culture, musicology, anthropology, histories of media and cultural practices, and auditory issues, Acoustic Territories seeks to examine the exchanges between environments and people registered through deep listening aural experience. In particular, LaBelle is interested in the ways in which sound disintegrates and reconfigures space through a political process, turning them into acoustic territories. To analyze such territories, LaBelle focuses on five everyday spaces: the urban underground subway; home interiors, suburbs, prisons, and gated communities; urban sidewalks and streets; shopping malls and airports; and the sky, filled with television and radio transmissions, both commercial and pirate. In examining each space, LaBelle foregrounds sound as an anxious and restless transfiguration that "might identify a means for occupying and exploring the multiple perspectives of the present" (xxvi).

For example, regarding the sky as an acoustic territory, LaBelle sees transmission towers as "giving material expression to the immaterial, emanating the potentiality of medial reach" by displacing the corporeal on the imaginary plane of virtuality comprising the ether in which wireless broadcasts occur (238). Similarly, they speak to control over an organized electromagnetic spectrum through which are broadcast corporate or state propaganda. Such borders and controls are resisted, if not completely ignored, by pirate broadcasts, transmission arts projects incorporating the content sent via various frequencies of the spectrum, and the use of mobile telephones, making each user both a transmitter and a receiver, charging the imagination with potentiality of worldwide connective presence.

Such instances, says LaBelle, contribute to an aerial imagination made manifest by the presence of alternative content and the mapping of the borders of aural sources with the terrestrial tension(s). "Transmission," says LaBelle, "is equally about power and propaganda. . . . To transmit is to tap the political heart of social connection" (220).

This same approach is pervasive in each chapter of Acoustic Territories. LaBelle follows the transmission of various sounds back to their sources, uncovering a culture of aerial imagination and the opportunity for personalized expression, just as he follows those same sounds outward from their sources to their eventual receipt. Arguably, at times this trajectory travels too far, deteriorating into a series of echoes, beyond a useful arc, just as does sound as it ranges outward from its source. In between, however, by bumping up against the material world, or constructs of virtual ones, these arguments/sounds create a sense of space contextualized by relations located within larger cultural histories and ideologies.

In the end, the dynamic quality of auditory knowledge works to create shared spaces that belong to no single public yet still impart the feeling of intimacy, says LaBelle. Sound then is a network that "teaches us to belong, to find place, as well as how not to belong, to drift. . . . based on empathy and divergence, allowing for careful understanding and deep involvement in the present while connecting to the dynamics of mediation, displacement, and virtuality" (xvii).

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