The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening, by Lawrence Kramer

John Shand wrestles with a difficult but intriguing account of the background noise that sets the stage for sound

June 6, 2019
Source: Alamy/Getty

This is one of those books that makes you think that it is either incredibly erudite or incredibly pretentious. Either effort-worthily profound or a spurious waste of time. Taking the latter line leaves one open to the charge that one is too dim to understand it, while the former that one is not brave enough to call out nicely dressed but empty pretension.

In fact, it’s both. One has the feeling that there is a more straightforwardly written and better organised book fighting to get out. The author tries to make a virtue out of the “freewheeling” nature of the text – one may apparently read the short sections in any order despite their being set in an “intuitive sequence meant to suggest flow rather than structure”, but it comes across as rather thrown together.

Still, at the heart of the book is a good idea: the neglected importance of sound. Sound plays second, or even third, fiddle to vision and text in what forms our world and stands as the conduit to the truth about it. (Surprisingly, the fundamentality of touch goes unmentioned; if anything “grounds our sense of being”, it is touch rather than sound, as Lawrence Kramer claims – something considered by George Berkeley.) But sound is catching up, partly because of technological developments that have allowed it to be recorded and become far more pervasive in our lives, far more of a signifier and significant – rather as visual images have done in relation to text from the time when photography and film appeared (not a parallel the author picks up on, oddly enough).

The central distinction of the book – indeed a blessed thread that does what it can to unite its disparity – is that between the “audiable” and audible. The audiable has to be understood as the background, which Kramer claims is the sound of sound (here you have one of the “Eh?” head-scratching moments). It has a sound, a hum in fact, without actually being an audible sound. Well, I’m not sure about that. But it’s certainly true that things may potentially have a certain kind of sound they can make, and thus actually become audible. Kramer likens the audiable to a directionless light source that allows the visible: we do not see the light source, but we see what the light source illuminates. In the same way, the audiable is something not heard as something audible, but as something that allows those things we experience as audible. Strangely, Kramer fails to get down to earth and mention air or other sound-conveying gases.

This is the set-up for the book. But it is very frustrating to read, as it jumps hither and thither from mundane observation to florid speculation. But I do approve strongly of what seems to be the author’s view that sound, especially in the form of music, can be a source of “humanistic knowledge”.

In the end, is it worth the effort? Yes, it is. It is fecund – and valuable perhaps as a source to see if you cannot go away and write down the interesting ideas it waves its hand at in a clearer and more systematic manner.

John Shand is an honorary associate in philosophy at The Open University.

The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening
By Lawrence Kramer
University of California Press, 256pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780520303492
Published 12 April 2019

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