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Cart-otographies of cities

Cart-otographies of cities: Sound mapping Urban Political Economies

Soundmapping Hong Kong, March 2018 (Photography by Naomi Waltham-Smith)

Project description

PI: Naomi Waltham-Smith

A project funded by an Akademie Schloss Solitude fellowship, 2019–2021

What does capital sound like? How can we hear urban political economies? 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 Cartographies 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 Jacques Derrida’s “otobiographies.” I argue that aural mapping provides an alternative way of conceptualizing the crises of representation that have accompanied capitalism’s ongoing crisis, one that reflects critically on the problem of totalization.

The project combines theoretical speculation with practices of field recording in order to examine efforts to make political-economic relations audible. It explores 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. The products of the research cannot just be literal maps, but will also include, through artistic collaborations, compositions, and installations that promote and critique practices of listening. Cart-otographics is the science of mapping political economy’s spatial distributions by ear.

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 involves asking how audible the interventions of urban social movements and the effects of local grassroots organizing are and how they make political-economic relations audible. I am continuing to make further field recordings in the Parisian quartiers populaires to explore how various actors mobilize practices of listening and sounding in the course of local struggles, making underlying political-economic relations readily perceptible. Drawing on this work, I am developing a theory of “political-economic listening” that strives to make capital audible.

I presented some of these methods of urban soundmapping at a policy day on the UN Habitat III New urban Agenda at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House in December 2017. A brief write-up and some audio examples can be found on the PWH blog. You can also learn more about this project here.