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Vol. 1 No. 2 (2020): Soundscapes, Sonic Cultures, and American Studies

The Timbre of Trash: Rejecting Obsolescence Through Collaborative New Materialist Sound Production

  • Joe Cantrell
October 27, 2020


Late capitalist production is highly dependent upon the continuous manufacture of new goods to be brought to market. The idea of obsolescence plays a key role in this process, as more recent commodities replace older, presumably less-effective products. This process is especially prominent in the technological sector, which routinely encourages the deliberate replacement of older devices— even when still functional. Digital audio technologies fall in line with these practices, and are often produced using exploitative labor practices. A serious consideration of these effects poses a difficult question for sonic artists who use electronic and digital equipment in their practice. Specifically, how can sound practitioners begin to account for and push against their tacit contribution to the detrimental effects of obsolescence entailed by the tools of their craft?

This article explores this question through the lens of new materialist discourse, which outlines modes of engaging with the physical world that reject the assumption that objects are static. Instead, they employ an understanding of objects as collective agents in constant active assemblage of shared material actions that include the presence of human bodies as part of a continuum of objects within larger systems of capital, labor, and politics. The  electronic audio practices of American sonic artists who incorporate obsolete, broken, and discarded objects in their work will act as case studies for this exploration. Their work helps understand possible collaborative implementations of technological audio production that recognize the collective agency involved in their physical and aural production.


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