aural flâneur
Tokyo 15.JPG

Cart-otographies of Urban Political Economies

A multimedia, comparative project to soundmap urban political economies in cities around the world, involving collaborations with artists, designers, composers, and activists and supported by a fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany

Hong Kong (March 2017). Photo by Naomi Waltham-Smith.

What does capital sound like? How can we hear urban political economies?

In what ways does capital function as a technology of listening in reshaping urban life?

How have various “sonic actors” (sound artists, film sound designers, Foley artists, social movements, grassroots organisations etc.) engaged with urban political economies and made them audible?

There is now a body of scholarship, shaped to no small degree by the work of Frederic Jameson and Susan Buck-Morss, on representations of capital. Much of this has focused on visual imaginaries. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, for instance, have recently taken up Jameson’s notion of “cognitive mapping” in their Cartogragphies of the Absolute, a study of how artists, film-makers, writers, and theorists have in recent decades grappled with the problem of mapping global capital. My project offers something of a complement and a response to this book by asking how urban political economies can be heard rather than merely seen. Hence the title of the project at once nods to Toscano and Kinkle’s appropriation of Jameson’s phrase and also echoes Derrida’s “otobiographies.” I argue that soundmapping provides an alternative way of conceptualizing the aporias of representation—political and aesthetic—that have accompanied capitalism’s ongoing crisis. If post-Fordist capital’s dominant mode of production feeds off technological change, then neoliberalism is also a technology of listening and soundmapping produces a representation of the ways in which capital changes how we hear.

The project draws upon a mixture of field recording and GIS mapping technologies in order to examine efforts to make political-economic relations audible. I shall explore the listening habits and strategies that attempt to map capital sonically rather than visually. Soundmapping then becomes less a matter of locating sounds geographically and more a question of aesthetic economics. Cart-otographics is the science of mapping political economy’s spatial distributions by ear. In collaboration with sound and visual artists, composers, photographers, filmmakers, and urban designers, I also plan to create an archive of urban soundmaps—not only geographical maps but also compositions, installations, and so forth that critically map capital via listening practices.

Much like the echolocation techniques used by bats, this involves sounding out certain points within the urban fabric. I think of this as a kind of stethoscopic listening or mediate auscultation that can hear at only one point various blockages, collapses, and imminent failures up to a systemic level. My project listens less for the circulations of capital than for micro-points of crisis where social well-being is in jeopardy and where political-economic antagonisms reach a certain intensity. This accounts for the focus on urban politics. Part of the project will involve examining the ways in which artists, such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan and the sound art collective Ultra-red, have intervened in local struggles around housing, immigration, and the environment. I will also make field recordings to explore how various actors mobilize practices of listening and sounding in the course of urban housing and climate politics that struggle to make underlying political-economic relations readily perceptible. Drawing on this work, I will develop a theory of an alternative technology of political-economic listening that strives to make capital audible.

Tokyo (April 2017). Photo by Naomi Waltham-Smith.

Tokyo (April 2017). Photo by Naomi Waltham-Smith.