Underwater Ears: The Liquidity of Transduction

Curator's Note

Sound and water—two immersive ur-liquids—have reflected one another one throughout history and within the arts, from the Romantic euphoria induced by the rushing white noise of waterfalls, to present day transductions of the deep sea. Yet, where once the affective experience of such vital fluids produced notions of the sublime, today the crossing of sonic thresholds is often understood in terms of action potentials, discussed in terms of the function of mechanical transducers. Transduction is invoked by sound studies scholars such as Stefan Helmreich, Jonathan Sterne, and Douglas Kahn as a passing from one energy state (mechanical) from another (electrical). Its inherent liquidity resides in its flows through space, time, and life itself, building in the notion of travel as an ontological condition of sound.

My provocation here is to depart from the focus on the technics of signal propagation to re-encounter sonic transduction in nature as deluge, affective saturation, and turbidity. Thinking through the heuristic of liquidity, I hope to consider the ways in which such medium crossings are yoked to connotations of information overload, of nausea, and of noise—as opposed to the frequently invoked descriptors of flow and immersion. To do so, I submit the deafening of whales as an entry point into rethinking transduction as a form of stress and deformation occurring at sensory limits. Today’s sonic sea is a din of shipping routes, seismic surveys, Navy sonar, and dredging operations, documented to interfere with cetacean communication networks. Towing a line between pain and hearing, whales experience behavioral and physiological breakdown at the hands of violent anthropogenic soundwaves that penetrate, resonate, and linger in pre-acoustic, audible, and post-acoustic contexts. Focusing on the saturation that conditions the possibility for sonic sensation thus opens an aperture into both the vital aspects of sonic flows, and the destructive aspects of their liquidity.

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