Theory


Hearing is a way of touching at a distance.

~ Murray Schafer, The Soundscape

 

A landscape of memory


Hauntology
Although slavery has officially ended, everything in Amsterdam that is left unframed continues to live on in a certain resonance. Kathleen Steward explained this in her book Ordinary Affects.

It pulses (…) it hums like a secret battery kept charged
(Steward, 2007, p. 112)

This research will look at this continuous hum of slavery in the urban reality of Amsterdam through a specific theoretical framework. With the different city archives as a starting pulse in place, the question arises how we can listen to these places. How can we capture the stories that cannot be told? If numbers, words and images, as apparent politically neutral technologies, are presented as representation of an indescribable trauma it gives the impression of a positivist idea that an objective reality can be fully represented. However, these mimetic forms of representation are not engaged with relational ontologies and the fact that certain effects of the afterlife of slavery are still traveling between and through our bodies. Along similar lines of thoughts, racial trauma from the past can be considered as a part which is still present in structural social violence of today. This cannot be fully captured with words, but rather be felt through its affective traces. These traces are not only stored in our language and bodies, but also in the buildings of the cities in which our social lives take place. From this perspective, a city can be seen as a landscape of memory. With this in mind, a haunting city like Amsterdam immediately begins to transform before our eyes and ears into a landscape that contains lingering traces of emotions, histories and sounds.

The critique on the positivist concept of space and time that has been introduced in the previous part, links to practices of a theoretical framework called hauntology. Hauntology has been used in social and cultural analysis to investigate the aftermath and ongoingness of systemic violence, but finds its origins in philosophy. The term, once coined by Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx, restates the deconstructive claim that being is not equivalent as presence (Fisher, 2013, p. 44). In other words, a thing does not need to be present to be. In his book, Jacques Derrida investigated the relationship between presence and absence, and argued for ‘a true logic of uncanniness’ (Löffler, 2015, p. 3). According to this logic we not only need to acknowledge ghosts, but we have to learn to live with ghosts, as he claimed:

Nothing neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present nor absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.
(Derrida, 1972, p. 24)

So being means to be always and everywhere haunted by ghosts. Derrida referred to the specter or the ghost as ‘the visibility of the invisible’ that appears through a ‘frequency’ of this visibility (Derrida, 1994). When addressing the ghost as representation of the haunting, the figure of the ghost can thus be considered to be neither present, nor absent and neither dead nor alive (Davis, 2005). Using a hauntological perspective thus serves as a ‘heuristic device’ that exceeds a certain binary logic of supposedly stable, ontological categories, such as living/dead, being/non-being and presence/absence (Buser, 2017, p. 5).

Hauntology has been used in various fields of research, such as pedagogical studies (Zembylas, 2013), geographical and urban scholarship (Till, 2005) and political science (Lewis, 1996). Another area has been centered around music and, among other points of focus, the way in which hauntology enables social research to critically analyze the notion of ‘the failure of the future’ in contemporary music (Fisher, 2012, p. 16). Another way in which hauntology has been used in social research is focussed on (anti-)Blackness and the afterlife of slavery. An example of social research that investigated the aftermath and ongoingness of systemic violence through the framework of hauntology, is the work of Gordon (2008). She researched the haunting violence on everyday life and showed that the effects of systemic violence are socially repressed and unrecognized, but will not go away:

haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with.
(Gordon, 2008, p. 16)

The theoretical assumption in hauntology of the ‘spectral turn’ enables researchers to use another concept of time in contrast to a Western separation of the past, present and future (Gordon, 2008). Hauntology can open the door towards a concept of time that is not linear, but ongoing and interrelated. This concept of time has been used by Gordon to describe ‘haunting’ as the moment when the ‘over-and-done-with comes alive’ (Gordon, 2011, p. 2). She argued that ghosts will appear when the trouble they represent will no longer be blocked from our view. Hauntology research can thus be seen as a unique way of looking at, in the words of Derrida, the frequencies of the non-visible. By looking at these frequencies, the repressed past can appear that was normally blocked from our view. Hauntology thus enables social research to more deeply engage with ongoing repressive forces from suffering on contemporary landscapes of memories like Amsterdam.

Is this unique way of looking, however, enough to better understand and experience the inexpressible loss of slavery? Could language be enough to capture the complex, ongoing trauma that is neither in the past, nor present? An important research that worked through and with this tension is the work of Christina Sharpe. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being draws on Maurice Blanchot’s theory of disaster as an event that ‘wrecks language’ (Sharpe, 2016). Accordingly, her work offered a vocabulary of repurposed everyday words in order to address anti-blackness. In using everyday life and language she offered a strong and deep analysis of the continuing afterlife of slavery (Black, 2016). For instance the words of ‘The Hold’, as one of the chapters of the book, was used by Sharpe to show the continuations from the belly of a ship via the cops who enforce the contemporary manifestation of the hold. In her review of the book, Hannah Black highlighted Sharpe’s striking observation of the cellphone picture of Oscar Grant that he took of the transit cop who later killed him as a picture that was ‘shot from the angle of the hold’.

Through strong hauntological analysis as presented in the work of Sharpe, it is possible to use language to work through the tension of language. A book that explored the boundaries of language even more is NourbeSe Philip’s poetic work called Zong! that centered around the massacre of 150 enslaved Africans who were drowned so the captain of the slave ship Zong could be eligible for collecting insurance money. The fragmented way of using language to give space for these indescribable stories to be told, is in line with the way Sharpe used the term ‘underwriting’. As Black explains, this way of writing can be seen as a quite literal way of something less than writing ‘determined to keep connections loose, to stay in free association’ (Black, 2016, np.). Although underwriting might be the best way of using language to describe the haunting, when hearing NourbeSe Philip read the poems out loud I personally feel the deep, visceral emotions of trauma attached to these words. As this book seems to be written on a certain sonic background, suffering is presented in moans, shouting, chants, songs and curses. Therefore, it feels as if this book was intended to be spoken out loud and heard through sounds. 

Sound
While this research will aim to use similar ways of capturing the haunting through language as Sharpe and NourbeSe Philip showed, it mostly deals with actual sounds. One of the missing rhythms of this theoretical framework is therefore the concept of sound. This research is centered around the hauntological notion of a continuous presence of the past which cannot be measured in a conventional way. Therefore, a brief digression on sound is necessary. As the research deals with the bodily movement through the urban space to listen to the past, this hearing and feeling of sound will now be given theoretical grounds. Derrida referred to the haunting as a certain ‘frequency of the visibility’. This frequency of the visibility is not particularly seen, but mostly felt in a visceral and bodily way. To investigate this bodily experience of the past, sound can be a very applicable sense. In the words of Schafer, we can understand hearing as ‘a way to touch at a distance’ (Schafer, 1993, p. 11). On the other hand, hearing also means to be touched in a quite literal sense through air colliding with our bodies. In other words, to hear is to be influenced or to be impacted by a field of forces. Derrida’s phrase shows the centering around vision as the main human sense. This observation is in line with many recent contributions, such as the work of Jay (1993) and Sterne (2003, p. 3), that have identified and critiqued the hierarchy of human senses in modern Western life with the eye as the most important gatherer of information. This research on sound therefore moves with the call for a ‘democracy of the senses’ (Berendt, 1985, p. 32, quoted in Bull and Back, 2003, p. 2, see also Attali, 1985; Classen, 2007; Smith, 2000; Sui, 2000). In the methodology section, the work of Gunaratnam (2009, p. 4) will be discussed in an effort to go beyond this call of a democracy of the senses by emphasizing on the auditory sensibility as a part of research ethics.

As Schafer rightly pointed out, the ear is a part of the human body that cannot naturally be stopped from working.

The ear’s only protection is an elaborate psychological mechanism for filtering out undesirable sound in order to concentrate on what is desirable. The eye points outward; the ear draws inward. It soaks up information.
(Schafer, 1993, p. 103)

This automatic soaking up of information of the ear is playing a pivotal role in understanding the ways in which past presence is built in an urban reality and is influencing our social lives. The working of haunting sounds from buildings, as a kind of lingering, unheard sound, represents a unique acoustic signature of each space that is continuously and unconsciously impacting us. In Kathleen Steward’s book Ordinary Affects she crystallizes this insight by stating:

Something huge and impersonal runs through things, but it’s also mysteriously intimate and close at hand. (…) Objects settle into scenes of life and stand as traces of a past still resonant in things.
(Steward, 2007, pp. 87-53)

Although the framework of hauntology has been used in the field of music as a cultural and social manifestation of sound, to my knowledge, sound has not been used directly within a hauntological framework to investigate the aftermath of slavery. It thus builds on the longer tradition of hauntology that has been used in relation to the continuing traces of slavery, while centering sound within its methodological practice. 

Research question
The main research question of this study will focus on the ways in which sound can give us a better understanding about the haunting past of Amsterdam. The research questions are created to first closely investigate the haunting places of Amsterdam. The different places will then be used as sites to record the sounds that now travel through some of the same spaces in Amsterdam where the slave trade is still living. Finally, the sounds will be positioned in relation to the past of Amsterdam through a hauntological analysis. The research questions are thus as follows:

 

In which ways could sound give us a better understanding about the haunting past of Amsterdam?

a: Which places from the city of Amsterdam can be regarded as haunting?

b: What are the sounds of these haunted places today?

c: What can we learn from these haunting sounds?

 

This research will be related to the wider field of hauntology research to show the way sound can be used as a source of knowledge production that could represent the damage and the haunting in a way that richly narrates modern systems of abusive power by its aim to go beyond systems of language. The research question fits in the discussions around the different ways in which we can understand the ongoingness of trauma and the way we face forms of ‘dispossession, exploitation, repression, and their concrete impacts on people most affected by them’, as discussed by Gordon (2008, p. 15).

Theory


A landscape of memory

Hauntology
Although slavery has officially ended, everything in Amsterdam that is left unframed continues to live on in a certain resonance. Kathleen Steward explained this in her book Ordinary Affects.

It pulses (…) it hums like a secret battery kept charged
(Steward, 2007, p. 112)

This research will look at this continuous hum of slavery in the urban reality of Amsterdam through a specific theoretical framework. With the different city archives as a starting pulse in place, the question arises how we can listen to these places. How can we capture the stories that cannot be told? If numbers, words and images, as apparent politically neutral technologies, are presented as representation of an indescribable trauma it gives the impression of a positivist idea that an objective reality can be fully represented. However, these mimetic forms of representation are not engaged with relational ontologies and the fact that certain effects of the afterlife of slavery are still traveling between and through our bodies. Along similar lines of thoughts, racial trauma from the past can be considered as a part which is still present in structural social violence of today. This cannot be fully captured with words, but rather be felt through its affective traces. These traces are not only stored in our language and bodies, but also in the buildings of the cities in which our social lives take place. From this perspective, a city can be seen as a landscape of memory. With this in mind, a haunting city like Amsterdam immediately begins to transform before our eyes and ears into a landscape that contains lingering traces of emotions, histories and sounds.

The critique on the positivist concept of space and time that has been introduced in the previous part, links to practices of a theoretical framework called hauntology. Hauntology has been used in social and cultural analysis to investigate the aftermath and ongoingness of systemic violence, but finds its origins in philosophy. The term, once coined by Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx, restates the deconstructive claim that being is not equivalent as presence (Fisher, 2013, p. 44). In other words, a thing does not need to be present to be. In his book, Jacques Derrida investigated the relationship between presence and absence, and argued for ‘a true logic of uncanniness’ (Löffler, 2015, p. 3). According to this logic we not only need to acknowledge ghosts, but we have to learn to live with ghosts, as he claimed:

Nothing neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present nor absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.
(Derrida, 1972, p. 24)

So being means to be always and everywhere haunted by ghosts. Derrida referred to the specter or the ghost as ‘the visibility of the invisible’ that appears through a ‘frequency’ of this visibility (Derrida, 1994). When addressing the ghost as representation of the haunting, the figure of the ghost can thus be considered to be neither present, nor absent and neither dead nor alive (Davis, 2005). Using a hauntological perspective thus serves as a ‘heuristic device’ that exceeds a certain binary logic of supposedly stable, ontological categories, such as living/dead, being/non-being and presence/absence (Buser, 2017, p. 5).

Hauntology has been used in various fields of research, such as pedagogical studies (Zembylas, 2013), geographical and urban scholarship (Till, 2005) and political science (Lewis, 1996). Another area has been centered around music and, among other points of focus, the way in which hauntology enables social research to critically analyze the notion of ‘the failure of the future’ in contemporary music (Fisher, 2012, p. 16). Another way in which hauntology has been used in social research is focussed on (anti-)Blackness and the afterlife of slavery. An example of social research that investigated the aftermath and ongoingness of systemic violence through the framework of hauntology, is the work of Gordon (2008). She researched the haunting violence on everyday life and showed that the effects of systemic violence are socially repressed and unrecognized, but will not go away:

haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with.
(Gordon, 2008, p. 16)

The theoretical assumption in hauntology of the ‘spectral turn’ enables researchers to use another concept of time in contrast to a Western separation of the past, present and future (Gordon, 2008). Hauntology can open the door towards a concept of time that is not linear, but ongoing and interrelated. This concept of time has been used by Gordon to describe ‘haunting’ as the moment when the ‘over-and-done-with comes alive’ (Gordon, 2011, p. 2). She argued that ghosts will appear when the trouble they represent will no longer be blocked from our view. Hauntology research can thus be seen as a unique way of looking at, in the words of Derrida, the frequencies of the non-visible. By looking at these frequencies, the repressed past can appear that was normally blocked from our view. Hauntology thus enables social research to more deeply engage with ongoing repressive forces from suffering on contemporary landscapes of memories like Amsterdam.

Is this unique way of looking, however, enough to better understand and experience the inexpressible loss of slavery? Could language be enough to capture the complex, ongoing trauma that is neither in the past, nor present? An important research that worked through and with this tension is the work of Christina Sharpe. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being draws on Maurice Blanchot’s theory of disaster as an event that ‘wrecks language’ (Sharpe, 2016). Accordingly, her work offered a vocabulary of repurposed everyday words in order to address anti-blackness. In using everyday life and language she offered a strong and deep analysis of the continuing afterlife of slavery (Black, 2016). For instance the words of ‘The Hold’, as one of the chapters of the book, was used by Sharpe to show the continuations from the belly of a ship via the cops who enforce the contemporary manifestation of the hold. In her review of the book, Hannah Black highlighted Sharpe’s striking observation of the cellphone picture of Oscar Grant that he took of the transit cop who later killed him as a picture that was ‘shot from the angle of the hold’.

Through strong hauntological analysis as presented in the work of Sharpe, it is possible to use language to work through the tension of language. A book that explored the boundaries of language even more is NourbeSe Philip’s poetic work called Zong! that centered around the massacre of 150 enslaved Africans who were drowned so the captain of the slave ship Zong could be eligible for collecting insurance money. The fragmented way of using language to give space for these indescribable stories to be told, is in line with the way Sharpe used the term ‘underwriting’. As Black explains, this way of writing can be seen as a quite literal way of something less than writing ‘determined to keep connections loose, to stay in free association’ (Black, 2016, np.). Although underwriting might be the best way of using language to describe the haunting, when hearing NourbeSe Philip read the poems out loud I personally feel the deep, visceral emotions of trauma attached to these words. As this book seems to be written on a certain sonic background, suffering is presented in moans, shouting, chants, songs and curses. Therefore, it feels as if this book was intended to be spoken out loud and heard through sounds. 

Sound
While this research will aim to use similar ways of capturing the haunting through language as Sharpe and NourbeSe Philip showed, it mostly deals with actual sounds. One of the missing rhythms of this theoretical framework is therefore the concept of sound. This research is centered around the hauntological notion of a continuous presence of the past which cannot be measured in a conventional way. Therefore, a brief digression on sound is necessary. As the research deals with the bodily movement through the urban space to listen to the past, this hearing and feeling of sound will now be given theoretical grounds. Derrida referred to the haunting as a certain ‘frequency of the visibility’. This frequency of the visibility is not particularly seen, but mostly felt in a visceral and bodily way. To investigate this bodily experience of the past, sound can be a very applicable sense. In the words of Schafer, we can understand hearing as ‘a way to touch at a distance’ (Schafer, 1993, p. 11). On the other hand, hearing also means to be touched in a quite literal sense through air colliding with our bodies. In other words, to hear is to be influenced or to be impacted by a field of forces. Derrida’s phrase shows the centering around vision as the main human sense. This observation is in line with many recent contributions, such as the work of Jay (1993) and Sterne (2003, p. 3), that have identified and critiqued the hierarchy of human senses in modern Western life with the eye as the most important gatherer of information. This research on sound therefore moves with the call for a ‘democracy of the senses’ (Berendt, 1985, p. 32, quoted in Bull and Back, 2003, p. 2, see also Attali, 1985; Classen, 2007; Smith, 2000; Sui, 2000). In the methodology section, the work of Gunaratnam (2009, p. 4) will be discussed in an effort to go beyond this call of a democracy of the senses by emphasizing on the auditory sensibility as a part of research ethics.

As Schafer rightly pointed out, the ear is a part of the human body that cannot naturally be stopped from working.

The ear’s only protection is an elaborate psychological mechanism for filtering out undesirable sound in order to concentrate on what is desirable. The eye points outward; the ear draws inward. It soaks up information.
(Schafer, 1993, p. 103)

This automatic soaking up of information of the ear is playing a pivotal role in understanding the ways in which past presence is built in an urban reality and is influencing our social lives. The working of haunting sounds from buildings, as a kind of lingering, unheard sound, represents a unique acoustic signature of each space that is continuously and unconsciously impacting us. In Kathleen Steward’s book Ordinary Affects she crystallizes this insight by stating:

Something huge and impersonal runs through things, but it’s also mysteriously intimate and close at hand. (…) Objects settle into scenes of life and stand as traces of a past still resonant in things.
(Steward, 2007, pp. 87-53)

Although the framework of hauntology has been used in the field of music as a cultural and social manifestation of sound, to my knowledge, sound has not been used directly within a hauntological framework to investigate the aftermath of slavery. It thus builds on the longer tradition of hauntology that has been used in relation to the continuing traces of slavery, while centering sound within its methodological practice. 

Research question
The main research question of this study will focus on the ways in which sound can give us a better understanding about the haunting past of Amsterdam. The research questions are created to first closely investigate the haunting places of Amsterdam. The different places will then be used as sites to record the sounds that now travel through some of the same spaces in Amsterdam where the slave trade is still living. Finally, the sounds will be positioned in relation to the past of Amsterdam through a hauntological analysis. The research questions are thus as follows:

 

In which ways could sound give us a better understanding about the haunting past of Amsterdam?

a: Which places from the city of Amsterdam can be regarded as haunting?

b: What are the sounds of these haunted places today?

c: What can we learn from these haunting sounds?

 

This research will be related to the wider field of hauntology research to show the way sound can be used as a source of knowledge production that could represent the damage and the haunting in a way that richly narrates modern systems of abusive power by its aim to go beyond systems of language. The research question fits in the discussions around the different ways in which we can understand the ongoingness of trauma and the way we face forms of ‘dispossession, exploitation, repression, and their concrete impacts on people most affected by them’, as discussed by Gordon (2008, p. 15).