While Kim-Cohen's writing can be cynical and unforgiving and uncompromising. If he's right, none of that matters.
Against Ambience and Other EssaysPublisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 208 pages
Author: Seth Kim-Cohen
Publication date: 2016-03
It’s clear from the very beginning of Against Ambience and Other Essays that Seth Kim-Cohen's issues with the current state of sound art run deep, but his cumbersome, unwieldy style of writing causes him to have difficulty persuading the reader to share those concerns. The collection of essays unfolds with the same foggy half-heartedness of those books preaching the undeniability of evolution; that is, he never ventures far from the certainty that skeptics won’t be reading these words, and that certainty has taken away the real need for clarity.
The subject of the essays seems straightforward, at first. Sound is inescapable and experienced by nearly everyone, and could seem eminently accessible. But of course, the subject of sound art is less accessible to those who don't have the vast array of art venues (contemporary and otherwise) at their immediate disposal that some urban residents so often take for granted. Kim-Cohen, art history and theory professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, writes Against Ambience more for a pre-built audience than for those capable of being persuaded to his view.
The essays are at their best when the writing is penetrable, because he means for it to be (particularly "Sight, Site, Zeit" and "No Depth: A Call for Shallow Listening"). As Kim-Cohen writes early in his criticism of the art form’s current gatekeepers, "We are well-advised to be skeptical of claims of privileged access or of forces that exceed signification.... I don't trust anyone who tells me that they get it, that I can't, and that they would like to favor me with their gotness. These folks are commonly known as 'con-artists'", and whether you agree with his perspective or not, he can be a persuasive essayist when he wants to be. If only he wanted to be more often.
Kim-Cohen can clearly write lucidly but more often lapses unevenly into the fussy pretension that is the jargon of so many academic writers so deeply steeped in the similarly opaque writing style of their profession. Too many of his essays stew in the tiresomely familiar nomenclature of the disenfranchised -- writing with an in vogue jadedness, he's as comfortable deploying a dozen instances of the overused word "problematic" as he is repeating the slang "dickhead" on the same page as he discusses Gayatri Spivak.
In "Information -- Politics-- Transcendence", he writes that "If a nonretinal visual art is liberated to ask questions that the eye alone cannot answer, then a conceptual, non-cochlear sonic art appeals to concerns that exceed the justification of the ear." Kim-Cohen wants to ask why this reorientation has taken place. Why the reorientation, as he sees it, away from concepts and precepts toward an art overly concerned with the solely perceptual?
He deserves credit, after setting out to diagnose the problem in "Sight, Site, Zeit", for acknowledging in "Information -- Politics -- Transcendence" that "To be frank, I don't think I can successfully diagnose this problem. It's too soon. This text is too brief." Although, nearly 40 pages have elapsed since he set out to diagnose the problem in the earlier essay, so it's not too brief.
The titular essay itself is a soup of the same academic linguistic gymnastics. It isn't so much that its message is objectionable as it is similarly oppressive. Much of the book consists of the author banging loudly in the hollow spaces of the current sound art scene in which he purportedly finds so little meaning but he never crosses over to persuading the reader that he can fill it with anything more meaningful than those he decries.
The bloated theory-heaviness of the book makes clear Kim-Cohen has little time for the latent spirituality of art. In discussing James Turrell's Aten Reign, he dismisses the artist as aspiring to "delusions of divinity" ("Percept -- Concept -- Precept"). It's tough for those seeking to create a revelatory experience with their sound art -- as Turrell describes his work -- to find much common ground with a writer whose discussion of transcendence begins by concluding "religion was designed to ... ascribe ignorance and then use that ignorance against those so described... I thought conceptual art was a symptom of our new disease: the death of god, the birth of having to deal with it. Alas, we're not so sick yet." With so little common language, it's difficult to imagine a conversational way out of this cynicism.
At one point, Kim-Cohen worries that "sound is coaxing the art world into a state of nebulous, naïve navel-gazing". He calls for a sound art that engages more, that demands more. (That "problematizes" more? Surely; whatever that's worth.) In fact, it's difficult to imagine anyone outside the pre-built audience for this book describing it as anything but "nebulous". Couldn't he reach an audience -- perhaps even the audience most needing to hear the arguments he makes -- if he stripped away the strange language of jaded cynic and fussy academic? It might deliver his essays, interrupted periodically by lucid and meaningful messages on the state of sound art, the audience they deserve.
Kim-Cohen makes an argument that seems important even if you're not yet convinced. While his writing can be cynical and unforgiving and uncompromising. If he's right, none of that matters. Only time will tell.