For critical posthumanism, musical atmospheres are a promising field of study. ‘Immersed in sound’, as Frances Dyson argues with reference to the new media of virtual reality, the Internet, and their auditive precursor technologies, ‘the subject loses its self, and, in many ways, loses its sense’ in indeterminate situations that undermine the classical subject-object split and the ocularcentric epistemology of classical metaphysics.[1]

One of the most influential early thinkers anticipating such inquiry is Hermann Schmitz, the founder of New Phenomenology. He defines atmospheres as the situational context of emotions, which are not construed as private states of human interiority, subjectivity, or the ‘soul’, but as forces that affect the felt body (Leib) from outside in a ‘surfaceless space’ defined not by the contours of material, three-dimensional objects, but by diffuse motions like sound.[2] Significant music, Schmitz proposes, is marked by emotional atmospheres that powerfully grip the receptive listener, even though musical emotions remain strangely indeterminate, nameless, and enigmatic, escaping the signifying abilities of verbal language and the subject’s interpretive will, especially when the listener is deeply immersed in the sonic event.[3]  Influenced by Schmitz but rejecting his claim that atmospheres are spatially flee-floating, Gernot Böhme argues that atmospheres are generated by the ‘ecstasies’ of material objects, i.e., by the way in which an object emerges in order to transform the ‘sphere of its presence’ while being experienced bodily by human subjects ‘in a state of affective resonance’. Especially ‘modern electronic techniques of reproducing and producing music’ show that atmospheres, notably in ‘environment art’, occur in ‘topological space’, where ‘musical space’ is the ‘expanded space of the body’.[4] 

Image: Mary Mainsbridge, Intangible Spaces, photo of musical performance with a telechord (Vivid Festival Sydney, June 2018). A telechord is a custom-made gestural instrument that translates bodily movement into sound (video). Illustration added by the editors with the permission of the artist.

Maintaining, rather like Schmitz, that sounds are ‘the more disquieting the less they are identifiable as the effect of a known object’, Tonino Griffero proposes that sounds, including music, seem ‘atmospherically powerful’ for a variety of reasons: because their acoustic properties lend them a presence rarely encountered in visual perception; because they corporeally arouse certain definite but pre-reflexive modes of behaviour; because they exert an ‘immanent symbolic power’; because they count as the principium individuationis of a person or place; and because they have a ‘paradoxically always more spatial than temporal character (headphones, ambient music, soundscape)’, even though, as in Schmitz’s system, these spaces are affectively connoted and voluminous rather than dimensional or optical.[5] Such sonic atmospheres are subjectively shaped instances of soundscapes. As R. Murray Schafer has shown, soundscapes inhabit a conceptual territory at the intersection of physical properties, social forces, and the arts; as historically changing environments, soundscapes range from nature and rural life to the modern city of the industrial revolution and the age of electric sound transmission and recording: ‘The soundscape is any acoustic field of study. We may speak of a musical composition as a soundscape, or a radio program as a soundscape or an acoustic environment as a soundscape’.[6]

Drawing from these positions, I propose that musical atmospheres are sensuously overwhelming framework conditions enabling the spontaneous, intuitive, and unpredictable immersion of the human subject’s imagination in bodily affective encounters with aesthetic sensations, prior to any hermeneutic understanding of a particular musical composition or performance. Despite the physical materiality of sonic situations—the acoustics of the concert hall, the timbre of musical instruments, programmes dropping on the floor, cell phones going off, traffic noise from outside—musical atmospheres themselves are highly contingent. Arising in the evanescent here and now, they can elicit an immense range of sudden and surprising effects on listeners—exhilarating joy, melancholy, transfiguring rapture, bored indifference, etc. Obviously, these repercussions depend on the aesthetic qualities of the musical composition and the expertise of the musicians, but they can never be causally reduced to these factors. Musical atmospheres trigger something in the listeners’ unconscious and directly affect something in their bodily disposition that partially opens itself to analytic reflection but only afterwards, in a belated intellectual response forming itself once the initial shock of the musical experience has settled down or passed away. Although Schafer admits that ‘earwitness’ accounts of soundscapes may be subject to ‘aural illusion’, he insists that being actually present during the sonic event guarantees the ‘authenticity of the earwitness’.[7]  However, it seems to me, this reference to authentic veracity is problematic since the retroactive response to a sonic event can never attain complete self-transparency and definitive explanation; the atmospheric elusiveness of the sonic experience always tends to call the subject’s response into question, even if the facts of the event are beyond doubt.

As some of my phrasing suggests, I seek to legitimate the importance of musical atmospheres for the posthumanist critique of human subjectivity by evoking the very metaphysics of Romantic music that one would expect posthumanism to reject. But if Stefan Herbrechter’s suggestion is convincing that ‘a critical posthumanism needs to link back to those critical discourses that run within and alongside the humanist tradition’,[8] then, it seems to me, we need to remember that even the Romantic metaphysics of music—with its vocabulary of affective immersion, transcendence, and ineffability—already stressed (absolute, purely instrumental) music’s irresistible power to exceed the human subject’s desire for autonomy, questioning its rational self-confidence and dislodging the hermeneutic ability of its verbal language. Linking this metaphysical legacy to the modern world of digital interconnectivity, the enigmatic elusiveness of a live performance’s atmosphere escapes even the most advanced media of technological (re-)production, which, as Friedrich Kittler stresses, can adequately record the materiality of acoustic data but not intangible effects like meanings, intentions, or affects.[9] But today, with the use of mobile devices like the iPod, new musical atmospheres of aestheticizing transcendence are created by the projection of the music heard through the earbuds onto the urban environment. As Michael Bull has shown, this transfer significantly affects the perceived mood of streets and people, making them appear as friendlier, melancholic, or intense, dependent on the soundtrack’s mood; in fact, for some users, the world of the teeming metropolis turns into a quasi-movie.[10] At the same time, however, this sonic fantasy also disempowers the sovereign agency of the listening subject, especially when the automatic function of the iPod’s shuffle mode forces ‘a level of contingency upon the juxtaposition of sound and street’[11] that, as Arved Ashby puts it, ‘makes it all the more difficult to answer the question of whether a human plays the MP3 player or vice versa’.[12] This digitisation of musical atmospheres is only one example suggesting why posthumanist theory must include a self-critical examination of the possibilities and potential dangers lurking in the randomised interface between human subjects, increasingly self-regulating media technologies, and the culture industry of capitalist consumer society. Because musical atmospheres—whether in live performances or technologically mediated—are always diffuse but sensuously present, they offer an aesthetic domain in which human subjectivity and the imagination are neither truly autonomous nor entirely deconstructed; rather, they emerge as endless processes of cognitive self-exploration, exposure to otherness, and experiences of indeterminacy.

– The University of Alabama in Huntsville, December 2019

[1] Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2009), p. 4.

[2] Hermann Schmitz, New Phenomenology: A Brief Introduction, trans. by Rudolf Owen Müllan, with Martin Bastert (n.p.: Mimesis International, 2019), pp. 93-98.

[3] Hermann Schmitz, System der Philosophie, Dritter Band: Der Raum, Fünfter Teil: Die Wahrnehmung (Bonn: Bouvier-Grundmann, 1978), pp. 258-60.

[4] Gernot Böhme, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. by Jean-Paul Thibaud (London, New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 19, 168-70.

[5] Tonino Griffero, Atmospheres: Aesthetics of Emotional Spaces, trans. by Sarah de Sanctis (Farnham, Surrey, UK and Burlington: VT, USA: Ashgate 2014), pp. 85-86.

[6] R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1994), p. 7. 

[7] Schafer, The Soundscape, pp. 8-9.

[8] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 62.

[9] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 15-16, 23. 

[10] Michael Bull, ‘The Audio-Visual IPod’, in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 197-208.

[11] Bull, ‘The Audio-Visual IPod’, p. 205.

[12] Arved Ashby, Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2010), p. 175; see also pp. 189-90.