Acoustic Imaginaries (the pirate, the runaway, the listener)



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Brandon LaBelle is an artist, writer and theorist working with sound culture, voice, and questions of agency.

Acoustic Imaginaries (the pirate, the runaway, the listener)

by Brandon LaBelle



This sound is an invisible matter; this sound is already mine and yours; this sound is never one or the other, but both; this sound is precisely a space between; it is restless, this sound; it is an economy of the between; from me to you to this and to what is behind and farther; it is already shared and dispersed; this sound that is more than human, that alienates; this sound, like all sounds, an assemblage; with what is close, and the different; with the difference that I am always already; and which makes it possible to say: I am here by way of you.

Such might be one of the primary attributes of sound in general: a complex intertwining of place and placelessness, phenomenological fact and ephemeral haunting, singularity and its diffusion, matter and energy. In short, as what may give manifestation to the between: neither one, nor the other. What I may already call: the impossibility of not sharing. Sound as a trafficker. Through this suggestive dynamic, sound may be said to deepen one's connectedness to the immediate and the situated, while equally fostering more transient, ephemeral, and phantasmic experience.

In this sense, I'm moved to emphasize these dualities less as a strict line and more as a fragile border, to ultimately pose an understanding of "acoustic relation" -- this acoustic imaginary -- as something that, rather than resist the discrepancies or tensions between fact and fiction, matter and dreams, the actual and the potential, operates to conduct them: to make them meaningful. Acoustic relation as a mode of relating otherwise.

from me to you to this and to what is behind and farther.

If acoustic relation, as I'm suggesting, is the weaving or hinging of phenomenological fact and ephemeral haunting, it necessarily figures one within a mode of listening -- what I may refer to as "listening-dreaming". A listening-dreaming that specifically traffics across presence and absence to give way to a state of ground/lessness: a type of sensitivity for what is always so close and so distant at the same time, in the same place.

It is my sense that acoustic relation intensifies what listening is always already doing: relating me to that which I cannot relate (these sounds that are always on the side of the invisible, the illegible, the unrecognizable). As such, acoustic relation can be emphasized as a process, a figuring of attention, adept at fostering acknowledgement and recognition that are also immediately undecidable, even unreliable; from the depths of empathy captured by way of listening to the diffuse encounters that continually interrupt, figuring by way of noise a range of confrontations with the unrecognizable (these languages or voices I do not understand); from the reverberations of memory, sleep and reverie to the vibrational ambiences of place that soothe or impinge upon oneself. By way of a range of auditory and affective experiences, one works through a complex maze of the un/familiar.

Following the dynamics of acoustic relation, I'm led to ask: how might we approach this weave of the fact of things with the presence of the unseen, of what is not quite apparent but often felt or heard? In what ways might one navigate the constructs this between poses, to negotiate its disorienting intensity, its dialectical dissipation, turning toward forms of practice, a mode of being-with precisely with what is often difficult to grasp?

This invisible matter that touches the heart; that captures even while offering escape.

From voices to noises, musics to things, leaves to thoughts... acoustic relation may afford contact with habitats and bodies different from one's own, allowing for the distant to become intensely proximate, the refrains of particular memories to come forward -- all of this which interrupts and supports with a certain vitality. This may be an aspect of the education sound and listening afford, to contend with states of relationality that exceed relation, that fall short or that give too much: encounters with the unrecognizable -- What is this sound I hear? Who is there? -- and which troubles legibility, extending the shape of this body toward other representations and conversations, toward an energetic scene of bodily and ethical tension, even pleasure.

Listening works at such interruptiveness, such tensions, figuring relations precisely through the dark and alongside the human, through and then out of the body, to bring one alongside and with the absolutely foreign: this creature, this thing, this absence -- that which resounds with silence, which allows for a certain remembering. Listening-dreaming is posed as a movement of attention, a dispossession, a research, a method, moving one in and around the apparent, the legible, and that of strange imaginings, ideas. For dreaming gives movement to thought, to memory, enabling the articulation of a narrative precisely when faced with the unspeakable.

What does it want of me, this sound? This enigma.

Acoustic relation is imaged here as enabling a redefinition of relationality, as being less shaped by recognition and the intelligible, with what appears in the open as named or nameable, speakable. Rather, I may emphasize the ways in which listening -- the drive or practice of listening-dreaming -- leans upon the interruptions offered by figures and forces of strangeness, and that grants unlikely forms of collaboration and affinity. Listening, in other words, as what extends myself, that already pulls me elsewhere, revealing the degree to which one is constituted by others.

In this regard, I follow sound as it follows me; I track the voices that ask of me a certain answerability, and that inscribe the psychic lines from which my hearing takes guidance; I follow the inner voices within, as they seem to follow me, giving way to "the call of conscience" and the inner orientations of self-reflection -- the reverberations unfolding oneself and that may be heard to give shape to an acoustic imaginary: the desire for harmony or for discord, for the noises that aid in orienting the tonal shape of one's situatedness, giving way to possibility, pleasure, erotic fragmentation, assurance, refusal or repair.

Following and being followed, in this sense, is suggestive for a poor work, or a poor acoustic: to align with the ways in which one is interdependently figured, always already in front and behind, interrupted and supported by embedded as well as emergent ecologies of relations.

Gaston Bachelard underscores the intertwining of the real and the imaginary, fact and phantasm, as the basis for the making of a "poetic cosmos", an engendering of a world between presence and absence.1 A daydreaming, which is a shimmering of consciousness, a lapse of distinguishability, a dreaming with the eyes open that trembles the fact of things with imagination. Poetics, for Bachelard, opens a path -- a "downhill path" from which to elaborate understandings of relationality deeply enriched by the seen as well as the unseen, situating the legible and the recognized as always already tethered to the ephemeral: to the fragment, the incomplete, and that figures the uncanny as affording collaboration with the stranger at the door, the un/familiar. The absolute intruder whose emergence forms the basis for a disordering principle: a method of diffraction, which may be put to work, following Donna Haraway, as a "mapping of interference".2 A mapping, a tracing, a poetics by which such un/familiar collaborations may be captured, narrated, brought into the field of knowledge.

Although Bachelard focuses on a poetic cosmos as something that takes one out of society -- as a break, a flight -- I'm interested, rather, to consider the formation of a poetic subjectivity, the listener-dreamer as one that enables new forms of social imagination: that wields great influence over the ways in which one may perform as a social subject. Elena Loizidou, reflecting upon questions of resistance and vulnerability, offers a compelling framework by which to approach political subjectivity, one that integrates dreams and their telling; for dreams are fundamental to how we understand ourselves as subjects, and how subjectivity is always entangled within a complex weave of conscious and unconscious being, past experience and manners of living. In steering us toward dreams, Loizidou supports greater understanding as to the ways in which political life is shaped by the desires, the wishes, the memories and histories one always carries and which often evade articulation. Such matters contribute significantly to what one brings into political struggles, where dreams come to offer forms of expression that may ground the political in the life of the body, its vulnerabilities and histories, keeping us in touch with the unconscious underpinning the order of things. Dreaming, therefore, is posed as a form of work, a "dream-action" as Loizidou suggests, through which realities are often reimagined, put into different frames of narrative-ability, and through which one may work around the unspeakable.3 Dream-action may, in fact, function as a form of poetic activism, in terms of giving space to the un/familiar life of subjectivity, which equally gives room to the consonances as well as dissonances of memory, desire, culture.

To elaborate these perspectives, from acoustic relation to listening-dreaming to the dream-actions we may enact, I'd like to move closer, to dwell upon a particular expression where listening seems to give way to acoustic relation. To do so, I offer a transcription from a radio work I produced in 2017 (for more see: stranger recordings). The work was part of a larger series I developed in 2016-17, and which was presented on Savvy Funk / documenta 14 radio in July 2017. The series was based on undertaking a 9 walks in different cities (roughly once a month) and recording myself speaking to myself: a free-flow of verbalized speech intimately shaped by the step by step of walking and the experiences of being in a particular city. I was interested to cultivate an open and improvisatory speech, one which conversed with the city, with the impressions and events that crossed my path. Moving in and out of focus, from speaking of things in front of me to letting my thoughts drift, I tried to create a narrative that would capture that sense of place/lessness evoked through sound.

In making the recording, I often had the feeling that I was following sounds, the events surrounding me, following myself even: I was speaking after myself, trying to articulate that which I felt was awaiting me: to actualize a self that was not-yet, but that was graspable, emergent, resonant, that was already ahead of myself, pulling me forward. In this sense, I hovered somewhere between listening and dreaming, between attuning to what I encountered while also disappearing, a dispossession that afforded affinities with other things: the dusty sunlight hanging still, the disused wires trailing across the ceilings, the machinery and cardboard boxes strewn here and there.

Following, and being followed; wandering, and being tracked; behind and in front at the same time. Such a description finds a certain rapport with what Jean-Luc Nancy highlights as the "omni-dimensionality" evoked by listening.4 As Nancy argues, listening poses a primary figuring of oneself, as a dimension: a space that manifests itself, that emerges by way of listening, for listening poses "an other". Listening inaugurates relation -- it is always a listening to, and as such, it evokes presence to itself: "presence in presence" as Nancy describes. Listening to oneself, listening to the emptiness surrounding, comes to evoke a scene of relation -- to already open a dimension, an omni-dimension always populated by others, by the movement of things, the resonances of time and space, where the voice is touched by a sense of fragmentation -- a poor acoustic by which to hear. While the notion of following suggests a kind of linearity, a tracking of a singular force or form, listening tends toward multiplicity; a following that also bends, breaks off, dissipates, a "complex of returns" that turns following around, a being-with that is equally a being-followed, presence in presence, in which reverberation opens space to itself.

I follow my own following... making of me a crowd.

The final radio works, roughly 30-minute unedited narrations, start to map the poetics of listening-dreaming I'm exploring, as capturing this ground/lessness of acoustic relation -- this complex of returns; they give way to form a diary oscillating between place and displacement -- a sort of diffracted form, a map of interference. The voice one hears not only creates that sense of uncanniness defined by a voice without a body; rather, the voice seems in search of a body, fixing itself to things along the way: a city street at night, rain drops on an umbrella, lights in the distance. These become immediate partners, collaborators, a type of material or projected scaffolding that the voice evokes or erects, allowing for support along the way. There is a movement, an itinerary that turns into a narrative, an auditory thread the voice carries or unfurls, winding it around buildings, a passing car, the quiet of an empty church, a thread that pulls together a network, a multiplicity -- a following that spins back on itself, that spirals inward, and then further, laying down tracks that lead somewhere, nowhere; a narration that traces or weaves a sensitive construct of affinity, creating a temporary composition of attachments and attunements. Listening-dreaming, in this sense, is a listening out and a listening in, a sort of restless oscillation: to occupy the lively gap between.

In order to follow the winding and unwinding of this auditory thread, this omni-dimensional presence in presence, I want to follow the transcription of one of the diary entries, in this case from Madrid. To propose a reading, a following along, which I hope can offer further insight into listening-dreaming and the figuring of acoustic relationality.

Madrid, July 2017 / the pirate imagination

It is a hot afternoon, and I have entered an abandoned building, being given access through an associated squat in the neighborhood of Lavapiés. It is a vast space, full of trash, debris, silence. I enter and start the recording, not knowing the overall dimensions of the space. It becomes a question of moving slowly -- no, not really; rather, I enter and without thinking I start with hesitation, a slowness takes over, I follow, almost imperceptibly, moving into the space as slow as possible.

It is like a ship / Like a shipwreck / This abandoned place / Abandoned / Empty /

It is like a ship / Abandoned / Capsized / Turned over / Lost / On the island of the urban center

It is like a ship / The island of resistance / This ship and the island / The territory and the horizon around / What can we find here / To hide in the ship / To occupy

It is like an empty fortress / This abandoned ship / Around which the population and the political territories exist / This ship becomes an autonomous figure / It takes over / It introduces something else / The pirate / The pirate / And the ship / The abandonment and the possibility / The take over / It is a minor figure / This pirate / A pirate imagination / That fills this ship with its own fantasies / Phantoms / Fabrications

This ship is a kind of factory / The factory of ideas / Of making / Of taking / Of giving away itself / Through each other / To spread the pirate imagination / Free culture / And the free scene / Of making with what can be found in the trash of the empire / The pirate / To leave the ship at night and to steal from the island / And to return / To run back into the factory of ideas / The open community of free culture

The afternoon sun is hitting the dusty windows, breaking through the cracks to catch the still air: it is stifling, the heat, as I speak, whispering, stepping, keeping to the edges of the space. I start to sense the emergence of something: a type of renegade community, a passion: for each other, these friends that wait, that refuse. I hear them, around me, as figures that also follow me as I follow them: a potentiality nestled in the stillness, and which begins to resound in the stepping, the whispering, the listening that allows for a type of diagram: a voice stirred by unseen yet tangible matters.

This ship is always searching for new islands / Let us ride the seas / Let us take to the wind / Let us drift / We are marooned on this island of the urban center / Here all types of misfits come out to play / The pirate is an open figure / It appeals to the imagination of others / It assembles together all types of minor thought / Poor materials / Lost desires / Forgotten skill / The knowledge that can be made from such an assemblage / To recuperate the open possibility of something only glimpsed on certain occasions / This pirate imagination / This art of survival

The pirate ship is resonant with its own imagination / It beats out like an energy / It fills the ship with its screaming / It is a dance of death / The opera of the buffoon / What folly / What fantasy / These fingers that get themselves dirty in the detritus of the empire / We are hiding out in this dance of death / The song of the metropolitan Indians / As they broadcast their radiophonic literatures and lamentations / Their community reports / Their gibberish / The metropolitan Indians on the air / Searching for a new island / A city of pirate constructions / The media take over / The broadcasts that send out their energies into the wind / Across the streets / Of the productive city / To infiltrate every corridor of activity / Of family relations / Of these bodies working together / For the good of someone

Suddenly, I hear music in the distance, the banging of a drum, voices singing. It comes from somewhere, deep in the building, but I have no idea from where: I follow it, trying to come closer to these strange lyrics, rhythms. I speak along with these sounds, they become part of the narrative, this meandering speech. I am suddenly full of a feeling of danger, as if I might not be able to return, to find my way back. These reverberations that fill the rooms, the building, that disorient and reorient: that capture the present. And that start to lend support, to pull the threads of this listening into another form -- an acoustic ecology always already unseen, emergent, and that demands an act of care, engagement, collaboration.

The pirate has no interest in such productions / This dance of death / Speaks only to the fugitive and the exile / The ship is a type of autonomous construct that may also become a prison / I can no longer leave this ship / The island offers nothing / Already the natives are restless / Can you hear the city outside / Just beyond these walls / It is so active / It threatens to take over / It threatens the soft occupation / The fugitive assemblage of the pirate figure as it dances and drums its lamentations / It wails for the figures that only trespass the lines of the gridded city / It spreads the ocean across the urban center / It is a type of contamination / This pirate imagination

What may emerge from out of this moment, this strange suspension, this slow time that presses each of my steps; something changes: the sense of purpose, the sense of recognition as to who is speaking -- Me? Others? The space, the passing traffic outside, the music in the distance...? It all speaks, together, as a type of resonant festivity, a restless choir: one might call it a scene of poor listening, which draws out the power of attention, as what may attend to what is discovered along the way. Listening as what may enable relations that surpass legibility.

Let us swim in this ocean / Of fugitive ideas / To make from the debris of the empire all sorts of constructs / I know you understand what I speak of / I know you have the same wishes / This sexuality of imagination run wild / At sea and in the wind / Broadcasting and transmitting all that it produces through itself as an open possibility / As a figure on the run / We are runaways

I runaway by way of sound, the voice, slowness, the movement that encourages further movement: a type of exile, suddenly, which threads itself around these thoughts, this flow of speech and the matters with which it collaborates: the building is vast, I get lost in its recesses, I stay close to its emptiness, it presses onto the voice.

We are shipwrecked / We are in need of a new ocean / The finger / The muscle / The fever / The wish / I wish for the emptiness / The abandoned place / The opening / Everything is falling apart / There are only shadows here / A stillness / The pirate is a type of ghost / It is always haunting the empire / With its imagination / Its restlessness / Its desire for freedom / The pirate looks for entrances / From behind / From underneath / It breaks the walls / It tunnels / This figure of abandonment and shipwrecked ideas / It gathers the pieces and the fragments / In order to build a new ship / The broken soldier / The dance of death / The drum that plays itself / Ghosted by forgotten rhythms / Suddenly / It comes alive

The ship is always resonant with festivity / Drunkenness / Criminality / The erotic / The dark knowledge / The fugitive idea / The pink nation / The dance of death / The bones of the empire / Coming alive

I listen, I listen again, and again, this music, this song that is the carrier of pain and pleasure, that helps me along the way, that lifts me up, that shelters me and that grants asylum, at times, from the challenges of the city, the nation, the disposable economies.

The corridor / The window / The trash / The left behind

The informal

The camps

The desperate music

The strained voice

The shadow

The marooned

And the shipwrecked

The runaway

The fugitive sound

The metropolitan Indian that takes to the wind

And the pirate that produces a new ocean

Holding, holding the scene, the sense. Listening may be a gesture of attention that is rather dis/placed, dis/possessed, that follows/is followed: an act of (re)search, this searching again, dwelling upon what lies between and that is always multiple, omni-dimensional -- listening as the carrier of others, a remembering -- which is equally an act of caring beyond the recognizable. Attention as the power to attend precisely to what interrupts this body.

Following this thread, I'm led to consider "acoustics" as what enables ecologies of attention, that articulates the movements of reverberation: carrying sound, figuring a resonance, a holding, presence in presence, and that helps us return, repair: a listening again, where experiences of displacement and fragmentation may find a certain composition -- the work of listening by which to render a scene of transformation: to inhabit the omni-dimensional. An acoustics of attention might be what's at stake in listening, in drawing listening out as a greater construct or imaginary: what Silvia Federici highlights as listening's role in "reclaiming the body" as a power.5 As such, listening may actively give itself, within struggles over recognition, as a form of pirate care.

Listening as a carrying and a taking care, a care-work that traffics in empathy, affect, catharsis, agency, disagreement. That crafts a holding environment: attending to the unspeakable, or not-yet spoken, knowing there is always more.

This listening that allows one to remember, to memorialize, and that also leads: from me to you to this and to what is behind and farther.


  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 14. 

  2. Donna Haraway, "The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others", in The Haraway Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004), 69-70. 

  3. Elena Loizidou, "Dreams and the Political Subject", in Vulnerability in Resistance, eds. Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016): 122-145. 

  4. Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). 

  5. See Silvia Federici, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press, 2020).