Sound, Sight and the other stuff

This morning, I’ve begin pocking at Audio-vision by Michel Chion, or rather parts of the english translation as made available by Google (thanks!) Already, in the forward by Walter Murch, I am faced with frustrating assumptions about how sight and sound relate and function in human perception. There is a lasting bad habit of treating the visual image as equivalent to the “real thing”, as the source, the event, rather than the trace of these. Here, like in many other discussions of the audio-visual, Murch shows an awareness of the perceptual particularities of sight in one breath, but then forgets the differences between image as seen, image as recorded, and the source in the next paragraph.

“For as far back in human history as you would care to go, sounds had seemed to be the inevitable and ‘accidental’ (and therefore mostly ignored) accompaniment of the visual–stuck like a shadow to the object that caused them.”

He is describing the nature of sound before the advent of audio recording technology, for which the idea of the shadow being lifted off of the object is appropriate. However, he appears to be guilty confusing the object with the sight of the object. More evidence of this shortsighted mistake:

“And here is the problem: the shadow that had heretofore either been ignored or consigned to follow along submissively behind the image was suddenly running free, or attaching itself mischievously to the  unlikeliest of things.”

The sound has never been shadow to the sight, though we do expect to be able to reconcile the timing of what we see with that of what we hear: when things match up we can safely infer the causal source of both, when they do not match we are in the more difficult spot of trying  to explain away the difference or imagining independent sources from less information.

There is much made of the many ways we can trick the ear into hearing a different source than what was real: watermelons, cornstarch, and old leather jackets have made many sound effects from which we are quick to infer very different sources. This should be read as a tribute to our imaginations rather than a sign that sound is dependent on image. After all, these are tricks first developed for radio, from whence listeners were following the stories told in mixtures of narration and acting. And even when there are accompanying images, our eyes do not always succeed in overruling our ears. Multi-modal perception studies have found that the dominance of visual perception is context specific and dependent on the quality of the information provided by each perceptual mode.

I have many more chapters to read here, so this objection is not one I can yet put to Michel Chion directly, but already I am wary of the idea that we hear/see film. It seems more useful to bypass the false binary and consider instead how we imagine the sources of action behind the combined sight and sound that film provides.

At the end of the introduction, he raised the question: “Why does King Sight still sit on his throne?” Like other targeted authority structures, it looks like the language (and the understanding these words represent) of the resistance is counter productive as it reinforces the existing hierarchy instead of questioning more carefully the origin of “King Sight”‘s power.

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3 thoughts on “Sound, Sight and the other stuff

  1. Juan says:

    What about this one by Murch as well?
    “We gestate in Sound, and are born into Sight. Cinema gestated in Sight and was
    born into Sound”
    — synthesized helicopters… the horror! XD (just mocking up of the cheesy 70’s – 80’s aesthetics)

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