Bull, M. (2002) 'The Seduction Of Sound in Consumer Culture. Investigating Walkman desires', in Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol 2, No 1: 81-101.
[I must say I found this rather unsatisfying. I understand there is an earlier book -- Bull, M (2000) Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Every day Life, Oxford: Berg. This looks like a subsequent essay responding to conversations with social theorists who are trying to press their particular interests on a rather basic account. I like some of the theory, which includes Horkheimer and Adorno on Odysseus -- blimey, I even have some notes on this myself! I just don't see the point of dragging it in here. I can see that this article attempts to generalise considerably away from the material on Walkman use, but the level of generality seems inappropriate, to put it mildly. Indeed, it is the sort of huge generality that Horkheimer and Adorno are often criticised for developing -- their version of the Odysseus myth is clearly supposed to tell us something so general and important that we are to learn lessons about the development of individualism in capitalism as a result. Something of the kind is attempted here -- Bull wants to tell us something really important in general about the role of either sound or music in the whole of human culture with its dialectical tensions between structures and individuals, but I'm not convinced that quoting big-hitters in support is very useful. As a result, I have filleted this article considerably, and have noted mostly the more specific tangible bits about why people like using Walkmans, which is based on an ethnographic study of 60 such users. One of the notes suggests that it is the omission of this kind of study that provides a problem with the famous duGay text on the Sony Walkman].
Sound is becoming increasingly important to consumer culture, and some people clearly regard it as extremely important to the ways in which they manage their lives. Using Walkmans helps people to create 'intimate, manageable and aestheticized spaces' (82), although there are the usual paradoxes about consumer culture and consumer technology. Thus 'subjects are simultaneously empowered and colonised by sound and... it is precisely this process that makes sound so seductive to contemporary Walkman users' (83). [Then we get into Horkheimer and Adorno and other 'iconic historical moments of sound in Western culture' (82), which I'm going to simply skip over]. Privatized use of sound only exposes people to 'the sounds of the culture industry coming directly into the user's ears' (86), although people can use sound to 'reorganise... [their]... relation to space and place' (87). Sound is particularly flexible and has the peculiar quality of appearing to simply conform to the desires of consumers to reconfigure their spaces.
The effect is described by some of the respondents in the study to be able to impose film- like qualities to their everyday lives. Privatized music acts as a kind of sound track, which can enhance the experience of looking at people in different ways -- by the experience of connecting immediate perceptions with something 'far away', represented by Walkman sounds [as a note admits, these sounds are seen as almost entirely made up of music, although one respondent listens to taped books on famous novels as she walks the corresponding literary landscapes]. This permits the user to observe other people as objects, as 'function[s] of her own aesthetic desires' (88). Privatisation extends to being able to avoid the reciprocal gaze, and this is how aesthetic control works more generally. The very mundane and everyday use of the Walkman contributes to the aesthetic control of everyday life, rather than restricting it to appreciating objects of high culture. [I'm reminded of the discussions of fantasy here, which also involve an imaginary manipulation of everyday surroundings].
Listening to music on a Walkman can change the emotional atmosphere. It also has the effect of emphasising the aural at the expense of the visual. Private music acts as a 'necessary spark to a spectrum of aesthetic recreations' (90). It permits a kind of 'sound tourism' (91), with users carrying their own culture with them as they move around: Walkman are used not only on journeys to school or work, but are also taken on holiday [including walking holidays as above]. This has the effect of permitting a relatively detached and cool consumerism, being able to shut out any distractions from the actual tourist site.
Walkman users can experience a particular kind of sociality, a 'we-ness' (93). This appears to involve acknowledging that other people are present, but resisting any kind of shared interaction with them [listening to the radio for company would be an example]. This particular state is reproduced by technology like the Walkman, and some of the respondents clearly are unable to function without having Walkmans clamped to their ears more or less permanently. [Here and elsewhere, actual speech is quoted from the ethnographic study. Irritatingly, these simple statements are often surrounded by high powered philosophising and theorising]. The outside world can therefore be 'brought into line... through a privatized yet mediated act of cognition' (94) [told you!]. Indeed, 'When the Walkman is switched off, the "we-ness" falls away and the user is left in a void' (94) [these users seem to be particularly addicted and dependent]. Switching off returns users 'to the diminished space and duration of the disenchanted and mundane outside world' (95).
Walkman use therefore offers a utopian possibility of control over the outside world and the people in it 'as well as being located firmly in alienating and objectifying cultural predispositions that deny difference within culture' (95). Their identities are preserved by refusing any genuine encounter that might threaten them. It is a classic example of seeking security through consumption, and the consumption of sound seems to be particularly satisfying. 'Walkman use can produce a powerful sense of centredness, of being in "control"' (96). Their soundscapes become 'a utopian space of habitation' (96) . 'Walkman sounds enable users to order and prioritise the desire for other emotional, spatial and conceptual spaces to live in' (96) [really lofty generalisations arising from fairly modest discussion of some of the pleasures -- I suppose highly sensitive and skilful Walkman users might be able to do this, especially if they are artistic intellectuals?]. It is this desire that haunts earlier attempts to explain the role and importance of sound and music.
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