Pythonesque trip into sonic cultural realm

The Auditory Culture Reader. First edition

May 28, 2004

Culture is everywhere and everything. Indeed, the concept itself - so long-lived, so contradictory, and so indispensable - is now asked to enclose so much that it is not clear what is not culture; and it is in acute danger of vacuity. This stout and engaging volume is one of the Sensory Formation series, which will include the cultures of taste, smell, alternative visuality ("interrogating the multiplicity of scopic regimes", no less) and - just in case you thought you could joke about the editors' omission of ghoulies and ghosties - The Sixth Sense Reader .

The Auditory Culture Reader provides an extensive, even a motley, medley of new articles, old extracts and celebrity interviews. We get the endlessly resourceful Steven Connor (on clapping), Alain Courbin (on the sounds of the 19th-century French countryside, especially bells), Paul Gilroy on Jimi Hendrix, Linton Kwesi Johnson and black (Blak) music, a rather cursory nose-round-the-door from Stuart Hall, and an inane and garrulous interview with Lez Henry backed by embarrassing applause from one of the editors ("I mean that's a tremendously insightful characterisation of how the, you know, the explicit implicit basis...").

The ordering of all this is Pythonesque: there is no ordering rule.

Cultural studies is its usual anarchic self, sanctimoniously against method, piously beyond belief, but always practitioner of the politics of politeness, tolerating even the intolerable (all that goddamn noise) and terribly interested in any bashing-out of sound that happens along.

Such method as there is is more or less anthropological. But the volume as a whole sternly refuses the concept of structure, which is anthropology's own, or those of composition or audience, which the long traditions of musicology make available to its novel purposes.

Mostly, what the contributors do is take a topic - mobile phones, Northern Irish bands, Aldersgate in 1600, the meaning of reggae - and run with it.

On the way, they have much to say that is various, absorbing, breathy, surprising and satisfying; and even when it is far-fetched it is mostly worth attention.

Probably it is in the nature of such a volume to have no shape, to be catholic as to method, to start and stop any old where. Without any principle of order, however, such writers cannot criticise. With no mention of capital - the last enemy - and no linking of sound to money, these cheerful and talkative folk cannot address the darker aspects of their huge subject: how hellish noise separates people one from another, how it destroys intelligence and obliterates peace.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

The Auditory Culture Reader. First edition

Editor - Michael Bull and Les Back
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 510
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 1 85973 613 0 and 618 1

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