More Sound and Fury Than Clarity in 'Against Ambience'

While Kim-Cohen's writing can be cynical and unforgiving and uncompromising. If he's right, none of that matters.

Against Ambience and Other Essays

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 208 pages
Author: Seth Kim-Cohen
Price: $29.95
Format: Paperback
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.





Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.