Touching Sound, Touching Image
Mack Hagood, Miami University
Up until now, film hasn’t been on my scholarly beat. Primarily trained as an ethnographer, I have focused my research on people’s everyday use of sound technologies such as noise-canceling headphones and tinnitus-mitigating technologies. My article in this summer’s Cinema Journal represents my first published foray into film sound. If "foray"—which denotes an attack or incursion—sounds a tad aggressive, that's appropriate enough, as the piece centers on the sound of the cinematic punch. In "Unpacking a Punch: Transduction and the Sound of Combat Foley in Fight Club," I unpack the production and impact of the Foley punch in David Fincher’s film to theorize the material nature of affect’s sonic transmission in cinema. But while it addresses a different medium, this piece nevertheless stays true to my central research interest: media practices in which subjects sonically establish or sever connections to environment and other.
Of course, film sound has a copious and illustrious literature that I have taken great pleasure in studying and to which I hope to have done justice. Yet every article leaves some work undone and in the case of “Unpacking a Punch,” I wish I had done similar justice to the less-copious but equally intriguing literature on touch in film—especially Lisa Marks’ work on haptics and material connectedness in cinema. So, with this in mind, I’d like to use these afterthoughts to compare and contrast my discussion of visceral sound with Marks’ innovative work on haptic image.
Formally, my article is inspired by my personal history as an electric guitarist. In writing the piece, I used the cinematic punch as a signal input and then treated three influential theories/paradigms in sound studies—syncresis, schizophonia, and transduction—as effects pedals. Plugging them in, turning them on, twiddling the knobs, ripping them out, I listened for how these different models changed my perception of the sound of the punch. I wrote the piece because I wanted to better understand the ontology of film sound—especially in the art of Foley and its digitization. I also wanted to revisit postmodernist concepts such as the simulacrum, which figure (though not, perhaps, by name) so prominently in people's everyday media anxieties, as well as in films such as Fight Club, which thematically centers on "copies of copies" and a perceived lack of authenticity in a mediated capitalist society. In the course of writing, I also wound up revisiting one of the classic debates in film soundtrack studies: Is the soundtrack a reproduction or a representation?
So what came of my signal chain experiments? The short story is, I came to the conclusion that neither "reproduction" nor "representation" quite does justice to the mediated transmission of affective energy that takes place between Foley artists and moviegoers. There's a visceral, impactful, authentic connection happening there, even if the pasting of a digitized punch sound to a separately created punch image perfectly exemplifies the simulacrum, "the copy without an original." In the end, I advocate for the adoption of that last paradigmatic stompbox, transduction, as a model for a soundtrack analysis that allows for authenticity in electronically mediated experiences—one that also points to the already-mediated nature of aural subjectivity itself.
To put it reductively, transduction refers to the conversion of a signal from one form to another, something done by both electronic media and the human sensorium. The fact that transduction plays a significant role in engineering, molecular biology, genetics, and psychology, as well as in the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, not to mention the sound scholarship of Jonathan Sterne and Steven Helmreich, speaks to its potential to transcend unhelpful dichotomies in theorizations of media and subjects.
Some may hear in this description certain resonances with Laura Marks’ work, particularly Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, with the emphasis on the visceral, connective nature of sound complimenting her conception of the haptic image and the “mutual embodiment” of subject and medium. In fact, I must admit that I didn’t read Touch until after writing the early drafts of the article. And while I loved the book’s warmth, daring, and materialist stance, certain differences in approach were substantial enough that my late attempts to draw on her vision of haptics were unsuccessful (a fact that leaves me rather chagrined, to tell the truth).
As a counterpoint and compliment to the domineering, distancing “optical” gaze long familiar in cultural and film theory, Marks’ haptic visuality evokes the ways that looking can collapse distance to create a wordless sense of immediacy and loss of self-consciousness. Haptic images rush forward to embrace this affordance of human subjectivity, “thus it is less appropriate to speak of the object of a haptic look than to speak of a dynamic subjectivity between looker and image.” Like a lover, the haptic image can momentarily collapse the divide between a subject and itself, but while a lover makes this connection through skin-to-skin contact, the haptic moment in cinema or video involves “the translation of qualities from one sense modality to another.” Thus, synesthesia and translation are operative paradigms for this mode of connectivity.
In an alternate version of my article, I might have used Marks’ haptic erotics to make a slightly different argument than the one I made, namely: In Fight Club, participants deploy the erotics of hand-to-hand combat to transcend the fleetingly visual and alienating nature of hypermediated capitalism. The skin-to-skin contact of the punch is represented as the only means of authentic communion with the other, a proposition that denies the possibility of authentic connections forged by haptic images, such as the fistfight images in the film.
However, an interesting problem arises in such an argument, in that the bare images of physical combat in a movie such as Fight Club just aren’t all that haptic. This is certainly the case if we use Marks’ definition of haptic imagery, which is grainy, obscure, and lingering, causing the viewer touch the surfaces of the image rather than optically identifying with and/or objectifying the figures onscreen. But even in a wider sense, the punch image simply lacks impact. This is the startling but now well-known insight of Michel Chion—the one that catalyzed my entire project. In a moment such as Fight Club’s first punch (below), it is the sound of the punch that turns a fleeting or even invisible blow into a haptic event. You can mute the sound on the video below to test the claim.
In the end, although I (unwittingly, at first) followed Marks in using Deleuzian conceptions of connectivity to better understand the dimension of touch in cinema, my path quickly diverged from hers. In part because we each take our cues from a fascination with a different sensory modality, we arrive at different conceptualizations of touch and the material connections that afford mediated experiences. Marks’ interest in image, which is afforded, of course, by light, leads her to think in terms of translation and synesthesia when it comes to the mediation of touch—and to delve into the spooky complexities of quantum theory when she wants to argue for the persistence of indexicality in the digital image. Sound, on the other hand, is made of simpler, more brutish stuff. It is not an electromagnetic phenomenon, but rather a mechanical wave. As it mechanically vibrates the innards of the hearing ear, sound is touch. Due to this fact, I arguably arrive at an even more materialist stance, emphasizing signal transduction rather than synesthetic translation.
I don’t see these paradigms as mutually exclusive by any means, however. Like Marks herself, I prefer to emphasize not the “not,” but the “and.” No single sense and no single model will account for the heterogeneous materiality of cinema.
 Laura U Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (U of Minnesota Press, 2002), 3.