Review: Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity

Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Anahid Kassabian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Pp. xxx + 151.

Music plays softly, an unnoticed soundtrack to your shopping experience. A radio hums on the counter, the counterpoint to your kitchen labor. You catch a snippet of something from your neighbor’s headphones on the metro, or have a brief moment of musical recognition in your car on the way to work. Sounds unregistered, sounds forgotten, sounds to which scant attention is paid. Such are the shifting objects – the shifting sounds – of ubiquitous music, and such is the focus of Anahid Kassabian’s book, Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Working explicitly against a close-hearing model, Kassabian attempts to take it all in, accounting for what she thinks is an important moment in the history of sound.

Kassabian is a wide-ranging scholar of film and popular music whose work has increasingly trended to sound studies. In Ubiquitous Listening, she develops her novel theoretical frame over a tidy yet dense series of cases. The book’s six chapters each encircle a single area in the broader field of sound in culture, ranging from the deeply personal to the diffusely public. Kassabian’s background in film music surfaces most clearly in chapters on Armenian video artists, TV musicals, and noise and narrativity in recent Hollywood movies, but her theoretical applications are broad, encompassing an impressive range of more or less related subjects in clear, supple prose. She is interested in affective potentialities that traverse disparate media and argues that sound, despite its ubiquity, has been an undertheorized aspect of cultural life. Even with a heterogeneous archive, Kassabian is precise in her aims: to establish a new theory of listening that is capable of rethinking the theoretical foundations of sound and subjectivity.

Contemporary subjects inhabit a world of mixed media and haptic technologies, a world saturated with sound and touch. Ubiquitous Listening argues that, unlike in older models of bourgeois or Enlightened subject formation, modern subjectivity is an ongoing process of transpersonal (even supra-personal) change. The dominant theoretical model here is the notion of “distributed subjectivity,” a sort of Deleuzian assemblage but with a distinctly audial character. In arguing for distributed subjectivity as a kind of “field,” Kassabian draws out the nodal quality of contemporary relations between humans and technologies (109). Allowing for subjecthood as an element in a distribution or organization of unequal objects lets Kassabian attend to identity and affect as both felt in the body and as something more socially entangled. That is to say, she wants to drastically widen the lens for evaluating musical feeling, shifting focus toward inattentive or half-attentive subjects and things in dense networks.

Attention is a key fixture in her theorization of distributed subjectivity. The book argues for an expanded concept of musical experience, one that stretches into realms of musical sound that are not the focus of our attention – affective sounds that, as Kassabian suggests, are crucial to ongoing processes of change. Kassabian argues that ubiquitous music is so omnipresent in contemporary culture that it often escapes notice. Whereas musicology has been motivated by discrete musical objects or scores, and media studies has emphasized the interpellating image, sound studies must account for phone music, car music, advertising jingles, Muzak, and background music, the everywhere music that suffuses daily life. Ubiquitous Listening probes these forms, arguing that somewhere between partial attention and affective response, distributed subjectivities come into being (xxiv).

The best of the book’s chapters are those with the broadest scope, reflecting the theory of distributed subjectivity’s wide applicability. The first chapter, titled “Ubiquitous Listening,” examines contemporary media cultures and technologies by looking at how background sounds in commercial spaces have, since the 1980s, been foregrounded. Kassabian marks a change in the kind of music used in such spaces from “elevator music” to music by “original artists” (5). Her discussion draws heavily from Mark Weiser’s idea of ubiquitous computing as it has been developed in institutions like Xerox PARC and the MIT Media Lab. Like all-present interactive computers – from tablets to smartphones – ubiquitous music has become phenomenologically sourceless, nonlinear, and yet structurally essential to our lived spaces. In terms of these developments, Kassabian outlines two counterhistories – one industrial and one critical – of what she calls functional music. The former traces the commercialization of Muzak and satellite radio, while the latter follows the emergence of ambient (art) music through Erik Satie, John Cage, and, later, Brian Eno. The takeaway is that these shifts reflect changing conceptions of where, how, and what music is foregrounded, which in turn reflects new kinds of listening. Kassabian invokes Ola Stockfelt, arguing that ubiquitous music’s prominence problematizes not only the very idea of background music, but whether musicology’s text-context-reception model is still of critical use. The book brings these elements, along with a brief but fascinating typology of recently-developed music apps, together into a crucial research imperative: to more fully address the quantity and ubiquity of music and how this ongoing, everyday affectivity shapes subjectivity.

The humorously titled last chapter, “Would You Like Some World Music with Your Latte?,” addresses ubiquitous music in retail environments. Kassabian focuses in this chapter on Starbucks Coffee, its affiliated record label, Hear Music, and the prominent “world music” label Putumayo. The chapter elaborates a history of “sonic branding” and “affective marketing” in Starbucks stores and retailers of Putumayo recordings, arguing that both have worked hard to eliminate critical or “unpleasant” elements from their products, thereby making them accessible to particular “life-style clusters” (92-97). While the book is concerned with these forms of commodification and cultural representation, it largely sidelines ethnomusicology in favor of interrogating “listening processes and moments of subjectivity” unique to Starbucks and Putumayo (92). Kassabian offers a survey of musicological literature on world music, but emphasizes that this scholarship has largely ignored the relationship between affectivity and subjectivity. The book identifies what it calls “distributed tourism,” whereby individuals figure into distributed subjectivities via world music recordings (101). In such “postmodern cultural activity,” the local space inhabited by a listening body – the “here” – becomes part of a network with the “there” of the recording, putting the listener in two places at once (102). Unlike other postmodern theorizations of spatial collapse, Kassabian maintains that the distinction between here and there is crucial to this new form of tourism. Starbucks and Putumayo peddle commodities that enter into irreducibly complex, coextensive relations, reflecting a main feature of postmodern life in economically-advanced countries.

True to affect studies’ interest in the personal, two of the book’s chapters examine music and film in Armenian diasporas, a subjective field of which Kassabian herself is part. In chapter two, the book homes in on Armenian women video/installation artists, situating their artistic practices in larger discourses about Armenian nationhood, diasporic life, and audio-visual studies. In a fascinating analysis of non-synched sounds in these art films, Kassabian analyzes how nonnarrative music, sound, and image interact to create affective responses implicated in more complex questions about Armenian identity. Chapter three relates Kassabian’s changing relationship to Armenian jazz fusion, beginning in her university days and covering a nearly 30-year period. This multifaceted, even conflicted, discussion accounts for processes of subjective becoming related to Kassabian’s experiences with live and recorded Armenian music at different points in her life. Here, the topic is the personal as related to the public and the diasporic. Kassabian reflects on her affective, bodily experiences with Armenian music in its fluctuating relations to her awareness of her own identity. The book uses these themes to explore the more abstract idea of de-centered individuals within networks of distributed subjectivity. Kassabian wants to maintain the power of subjectivity as an element of life in diaspora (and other cultural formations) while stressing its distributing in and mutual constitution by networks of persons and things.

Ultimately, Ubiquitous Listening offers its readers a concise and invigorating look at the entanglements of bodies and technologies in contemporary culture, outlining new modes of thought about how these structures inform – and are informed by – their constituents. One of Kassabian’s strengths is her ability to shift quickly from concrete to abstract and vice versa. She takes pains to summarize and clarify her main lines of thought at the end of each chapter and in the book’s brief conclusion. In the final pages, Kassabian stresses that above all she is interested in changing notions of what listening is, how it affects us, and the role of aurality in subject formation. She suggests that her study is an early step toward a widening field that would more fully address sounds and subjects through theories of affect, attention, and listening. For scholars attentive to affect’s aural configurations, this short book offers stimulating and compelling explorations in unexplored regions of sound in culture.

                                                                                                                                  Benjamin Oyler