Can we read through our ears?
—Goodale, 2011, p. x
For Salomé Voegelin (2010), listening is not a receptive mode but a method of exploration, a mode of “walking” through the soundscape/the sound work. Similarly, Greg Goodale (2011) drew on the work of historian Lawrence Levine to describe “the visual metaphor of reading sound” (p. x). For Goodale, as for Levine, reading sound is, in essence, the experience of listening, whereby listening closely is akin to reading closely. Goodale argued that listening closely is a neglected skill and art that represents a gap or a blind spot in scholarly thinking. He cited media theorist Marshall McLuhan, proposing that attending to “ear culture” is a promising way to expand our ways of thinking: “By neglecting ear culture, which is too diffuse for the categorical hierarchies of the left side of the brain [...] only linear conceptualization is possible” (quoted in Goodale, 2011, p. 4). Cultivating ear culture by reading sound is possible but has been overlooked and reified in mainstream and academic perspectives on knowledge production and preservation.
Take Merrill Sheils’s (1975) controversial Newsweek article “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” This piece, while arguing for an emphasis on Standard English, put written and oral culture in a binary that, despite being disputed, continues to influence what counts and who counts. Yet it used very narrow assumptions. A summary at the end of the article recapped: the spoken word is rich but ephemeral; the written word “remains the only effective vehicle for transmitting and debating a culture’s values, ideas, and goals” (p. 65). Much of the criticism of this article and its arguments tackle the reductionism and inherent discrimination of this piece, and while these are crucial counterpoints, they are premised on the narrowness of the spoken–written binary. In other words, even the counterarguments to this piece point to what is being said and how, that is, they focus more on the speaker–writer messenger and the validity of the message than they do (if at all) on the listener–reader and the reception of the message. In arguing from binaries, we rush into conclusions and exigencies, missing the nuance that slows down our thinking so that we can ask questions like, why don’t we cultivate and nurture ear culture? In 1975, there were ways to capture and listen to oral culture (e.g., technology, media). Today, we have even more ways. So why don’t we, as Mashall McLuhan and Greg Goodale (2011) propose, shift the emphasis to ear culture and expand the binary?
In this article, we have attempted to make an argument for intentional listening and for reading sound. By “walking through sound” and exploring the most representative public spaces of the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso border region, this project has gained insights into an otherwise overlooked acoustic reality. Through “dimensions of sound,” we have proposed a framework for analysis that breaks down soundscapes, which are in and of themselves a genre, into nuanced sub-genres that serve different purposes. This work teaches us that preserving sounds is the beginning of an epistemology. It is a set of knowledge which goes from a dimension supported by concepts, scientific, philosophical theories, and technological knowledge, to a dialogue between beliefs, doxa, stories, and sensations that arise in the daily life of a society in coexistence with sound. Inquiry into the nature of sound also opens up a field of ontological possibilities to examine the positionality of multiple acoustic ecologies and their relation to reality. We see potential for continuing and extending this work—on the border and beyond—in rhetorical genre studies as well as in multimedia/multimodal composition. Further, the field of sound studies is inherently transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary, and the dimensions of sound are applicable for study and exploration in areas as varied as biology, bioacoustics, philosophy, urban planning, education, psychology, engineering, and sociology.
The Border Soundscapes Project