Author Archives: maxr

Rodeo YouTube YouTube Rodeo (on a paper in progress…)


Here’s the outline of a talk Rosemary and I gave at the excellent ‘Decolonizing Cascadia’ conference held recently at UBC Geography (November 16-17, 2012). The words below mostly consists of our attempt to construct the theoretical edifice of the project — e.g. trying to figure out how the online and performance rodeo spaces link up (which we are convinved they do). So, work in progress, with comprehension probable, encouraged, and admired– but not guaranteed!

None of you need to exercise your imaginations much to envision watching a YouTube clip. While the data loads the screen is filled with sponsored ads, suggested viewings, comments, search options, and so on. It starts — an amateur video filmed with a handheld device. A bull bursts out of a chute with a man on its back, hurling through the air, heaving and twisting until the man is thrown into the dirt. Its a video of a rodeo. You move onto another.

Maybe there is an announcer this time, and he knows the riders name, cheers him on, groans when he falls over. The next one is more interesting. It has a bronco bucking a rider in slow-motion, you get to see its leg muscles expand and contract. The clip ends and the space on the screen fills with half a dozen thumbnails of related clips. More bucking clips over here and over there. A broken leg special in that one. Your finger hovers over the track pad… where to go next?

This project wasn’t supposed to be about YouTube. We started out primarily interested in rodeo space and animals’ material and discursive roles in these spaces. We wanted to understand their lives and their histories. But the challenges of the research — unreturned phone calls, unreplied emails and generalized site restrictions — kept bringing us back to the screen. From the beginning we struggled with YouTube as a generative dimension of a rodeo project – and the degree to which it would shape our research. But we decided to create a profile – “parasightful” — to track our YouTube Rodeo viewing, allowing us to make comments on videos. In addition to our early questions — where rodeo animals came from, what they experience, where they are going — we were prompted to consider the analytic of our YouTune lens. Could we use YouTube to construct a narrative and history of animal oppression? Did YouTube change the possibilities of our rodeo narrative? Did this combination of things even make sense?

These combinations were not as divergent or strange as we first thought. Numerous theorists have turned their critical communications, post-Marxist, and cultural studies lenses onto YouTube as a way of engaging with material worlds – Matteo Pasquinelli and Jody Berland. Meanwhile, scholars like Nicole Shukin and James Lorimer have rerouted animal-concerns back to questions of digital representation.

Watching rodeo on Youtube, we were struck by how a vast array of subject identities — cowboy, queer, Western, convict – were all pursuing a particular “human” subjectivity – free, dominant, masterful – by enacting a basic desubjectivization of the animal. No matter how different the human politics were, the debates on the comments pages, or even the adverts the site was offering us, the same patterns of violence and humiliation appeared across cases. The same projection of human subjectivity reflecting back from the body of the abused animal.

Patterns and mirrors were our first clue into the idea that these two spaces — rodeo and YouTube had more in common that might first seem. Armed with work from the fields of critical communications studies and posthuman animal studies, and with dozens of clips in our wake and dozens upon dozens a mouse click away, we are aiming to contribute a methodological approach for research at the burgeoning intersection of these fields. What we’re training this methodology on is the phenomenon of YouTube rodeo. Before we go on, though, let’s take a minute to consider our two principle spaces here: rodeo and YouTube.

The common story told about rodeo is that “ever since humans domesticated animals there’ve been rodeos etc etc etc”. But in fact preliminary research on the history of rodeo makes obvious rodeo’s close ties with colonialism and slavery. In post-civil war Texas, feral cattle needed herders and so cattlemen hired former soldiers, ex-slaves, unemployed drifters, and Mexicans to gather up herds, brand them, and move them north. Cowboys. These cowboys would run informal sports contests for their own amusement. In the later 1800s these informal contests mixed potently with an American outdoor entertainment institution, the Wild West Show. Rodeos – from the Spanish rodear, meaning surrounding or mustering – quickly became a more profitable enterprise than popular “wild west shows”, because spectators paid to watch and competitors paid to compete.

While the institution of rodeo has skyrocketed in popularity, with thousands of rodeos now held worldwide, it has been relatively static over time and space, with most rodeos featuring the same events – calf roping, steer wrestling, and of course bucking events – in a similar arena space featuring grandstands, animal chutes, and dirt floored rings. It is an extremely male-dominated space, with most events prohibiting women’s participation. Audiences are an integral aspect of the rodeo spectacle and performance, and many viewers join in the spectacle vocally and with gestures. Of course, with the advent of YouTube, another layer of viewership is added to the spectacle.

YouTube is probably the hegemonic form of video viewership today. The site has produced new habits of viewership; new means for the dissemination of images, and new opportunities for the formation of community. By 2008, three years after its arrival on the scene, it would have over 140 million videos uploaded to its site. Lev Manovich could have been talking about YouTube when he remarked, in 2002, that “we no longer watch films or TV; we watch databases.” To Manovich and other media theorists, this difference is monumental. The logic of the database is of a collection of heterogenous elements, connected not by progress or development, but simply by co-existence and links. User selection is foregrounded more than ever before: “YouTube implies not only a continually selecting subject,” Jens Schroter writes “but also a subject which should freely express him or herself” in that process.

But unsurprisingly, free selection is not so free. Since its purchase by Google in 2007, YouTube would be fundamentally re-shaped to facilitate its monetization: new ads as portals for consumer spending, recommended videos to extend your attention, shorter clips to keep things in circulation. Not that the site was ideologically innocent before: YouTube has always been supported by algorithms that prioritize certain functions over others. Lo-fi, free circulating videos are created for exchange, not reflection. Most content originates from corportate media. User content largely consists of mimetic play: re-framings, derivations, mashups. User manipulation is valorized at the expense of narrative consistency.

But what does all of this mean for the study of YouTube rodeo?

In 1996, at the dawn of the digital culture act, art critic Hal Foster pondered the implications of this new engagement for the human subject. Website images behave like subjects, he noted, asking for user reactions and actions. In the process, subjects are turned into images, commodified for sale. You are the image and the image is you. Foster recognized in this logic a powerful rheotic device, writing that the “digital archive traces a chiasmus of subject and image.”

We need like to linger over this word chiasmus for a second. A chiasmus is a rhetorical device with origins in Greek Classical writing. MacBeth’s statement “fair is foul and foul is fair” is an example of a chiastic statement. A chiasmus is a dynamically reflective system, whose two sides operate in symmetrical inversion of one another. Note the pattern and mirror qualities here.

…………………………Subject ….. Image

……………………………………… +

…………………………..Image….. Subject

Foster’s concern with chiasmus is with a structure that determines, from behind the scenes, the form and content of human database engagements, engagements which increasingly define human worldly engagements. The fetishism Foster finds in the digital archive — in sites like YouTube — is not only that it obscures productive relations and material conditions, but that it internalizes those confusions increasingly within the subject itself. What Foster calls a “fetishistic anthropomorphism” describes the human subject increasingly locked into chiastic communion with images, images in chiastic communion with the human subject. The digital archive represents the intensification of an anthropocentric myth of divorce from nature — a society of immaterial labour, a society fixated on software and digital communication — on communities of code, and so on.

But the loop for human subjectification is not so easily limited to digital/material space. As spaces like the rodeo attest in their own specular fashion, other lives also constitute the human subject. Like the digital space of Youtube, the rodeo is, we argue, a glaring example of Agamben’s “anthropological machine”: “an optical machine constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape.” These “mirrors” are built from material-semiotic mechanisms of science and philosophy that strategically create a break between humans and animals – as Haraway says, we “polish an animal mirror to look at ourselves.” Importantly, this break is not “flat” but profoundly hierarchical.

Like the anthropological machine’s optical functioning, forever constructing the human out of the deformed mirrored image of an ape, the rodeo is obsessed with the calibration of the animal body, of momentarily “becoming animal” (as rodeo participants emphasize repeatedly), but through the deployment of physical discipline and control both in the moment and in the wider political-economy within which rodeo animals circulate. The “becoming animal” is simultaneously, then, a performance of “becoming human” by virtue of the animal’s subjugation. In other words, the human subject is produced via the expulsion or exclusion of the abject animal, the nonsubject.

Elizabeth Lawrence’s 1984 recognition that rodeo animals – as living creatures with distinct characteristics – influence the human-animal relationship at the rodeo, and are far from being mere static and passive representations, thus informs our analysis. But we develop her point in a novel direction. Considering rodeo’s emergence in a contemporary (digital, videographic) space – YouTube – we ask: Does YouTube change rodeo or rodeo YouTube? Critically we find that technologies of de/subjectification at work at the rodeo – mirrors and repetition – are also at work in YouTube and its subjectification of the viewer. We focus, then, on the rodeo animal and the YouTube viewer as non-subjects and subjects in formation.

The central contradiction we find in Rodeo YouTube — the reason why it suggests itself as a worthy site for staging our larger questions — is provoked by the images themselves. The mass proliferation of animal rodeo abuses documented on YouTube simultaneously contributes to their visibility as politically oppressed subjects and to their abstraction as digitally-recombinant images. A political space newly opened simultaneously threatens foreclosure. Just as YouTube pushes those images of animal violence “into so much circulating content,” so too do the animals seem to evaporate from our conceptual grasp.

To provoke this contradiction, we again have recourse to this idea of chiasmus.

In particular, attending to the chiastic structure of Rodeo and Youtube, YouTube and rodeo — which is to say, their co-constitution within a larger totality, allows us to take a limitation and make it an opening.

…………………… [chiasmus in narrative form]

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx reveals how chiasmus can serve as a powerful form of dialectical writing. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura,” Marx writes, “this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”

Here, chiasmic imagery becomes a privileged figure for the fusing of opposites characteristic of Marx’s thought. For us, chiastic inversion also becomes a dialectical tool. It allows us to expose the anthropological fetishisms of YouTube by showing how that chiastic loop is connected to other material realities. How the subjectifications of human-animal and subject-image are structurally related. Not only can a chiastic structure allow us to enfold YouTube and Rodeo into a conjoined narrative of subjectification, it also allows us to the think about the subjectifications exerted upon us as researchers. To explore how the content of critical thought depends upon its form. This is especially pertinent in our study of YouTube, where to think and write in narrative is a response to the assimilative logic of the database.

To demonstrate this methodology in action, we’re going to show a clip of a bucking rodeo horses and then discuss its implications.

We’ve chosen to explore the buck because its one of the archetypal activities of the rodeo. Many rodeo horses buck because they have been bred up through several generations of horse lines to behave that way. Of the 60 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association stock contractors in the US, 40 operate some type of livestock breeding program. To encourage the animal to buck as hard and effectively as possible, handlers sometimes use a specially designed device known as the flank strap. The horse will buck until the strap is released. Riders in both the saddle bronc and bareback riding can use spurs while riding as well.

As the YouTube clip reveals, the buck showcases the skill of the rider. The buck allows the rider to dominate the animal. Tact, grace and poise work against brute and irrational gesticulation. In truly successful bucking performances, the animal’s ability to shed the human body is temporarily suspended, the human body mimics the animals and masters it simultaneously.

As viewers of this clip wherein animals’ abjection is produced, we too are being produced as subject. Watching this image cascade, a standardization emerges. Each only as grotesque as the last, reduces in effect. The repetition dulls the differences. This disciplining process evident over and over again in this clip exerts tangible effects on the animal itself: pain, brokenness, death.

In a similar vein as the repetitiveness of the clip, the same animals are required to perform the same events over and over again, until death or injury that usually leads to euthanization. Animal humane societies are generally unable to track the injuries and deaths of “practice animals”, but injuries and deaths at live events are frequent. At the Calgary Stampede alone in 2010, six horses died from injury and euthanization, heart attack, and unknown causes. It is our contention that rodeo is a site of animals’ ongoing production as abject, as nonsubjects, as killable.

Conclusion [sketchy here]


As we have tried to show in this outline of our project, thinking beyond the anthropogenic fetishisms of database means questioning the anthropos itself. This suggests a powerful reason for bringing these seemingly distant spaces of Rodeo and YouTube together.

Emphasizing chiastic thought, meanwhile, suggests that the rodeo space is not the same thing after its mediation by YouTube. Its suggests that mirroring is not innocent, but that repetition always occurs with a difference, one felt not only on the human subject internalizing the fetish of the screen, but on the life of the animal borne to repeated acts of violences as well.

Yo Check These Waves

I just wrapped up an incredible week recording ocean surf along the Olympic Peninsula. Mentoring me through it was Gordon Hempton, a well known acoustic-ecologist and long time local resident. Gordon schooled me in how to anticipate sounds by reading the breaks, how to take advantage of living surfaces for resonant effects, and why it’s always good to pack a lunch on your outings: “not because you need food, but because a hungry stomach gets fuckin’ loud.” I was fortunate to be able to play with some top-notch gear for my experiments, but if anything what the experience taught me was how iterative the recording process actually is — cut, cut, cut, take, cut, cut, cut, cut … a 10% success rate is pretty standard.

Click below to hear some Olympic surf, or download the zip for the full deal. I start in a series of tide-pools that line southern edge of the Juan de Fuca before moving to a majestic expanse of wide open Rialto Beach. Perfectly spaced 8 ft. breakers crashing across a wide pebble shore. Pacific wind. Yes… The final sequence was recorded from the inside of a hollowed out spruce. Treatment consists of cross-fades and volume mastering. Wear headphones for full effect!

Olympic Surf (short clip)
Olympic Surf (zip)

* And if you REALLY want to check out these waves, email me and I’ll send you the higher-res version (as in ‘.WAV’s – eh!).


… some photos from the water-world of my summer internship: Cetacea Lab. The North King Lodge boat is from James. Enjoy!

Panoptic Boredom/Suffering Science

Last week, I found myself sitting in front of Cetacea Lab’s spectacular observation window staring at absolutely nothing for several days straight. A heavy front had rolled in and settled across Taylor Bight; even the island less than half a kilometer away was cloaked. One never knows with cetaceans, so we were doing whale scans nevertheless: left to right; front to middle; middle to back. Creatures to locate, identify and mark down on a sheet. As the hours passed one shift, my thoughts drifted from the chair where my body sat. Somewhere out in the fog, I had repositioned myself to face the observer, his tireless red eye gazing from the Tower of Taylor Bight. As the vision-cone came sweeping by, I lowered my dorsal fin and quietly sank into the bubbles.

One of the hardest things about doing science, as I’ve come to know it, is in confronting that strange dialectic between boredom and curiosity. How to pair the scanning, counting, and data crunching that confines our thought with the mental openness necessary to cultivate liberatory interspecies relationships? I’ve coined a term for the condition I sometimes find myself in with the scan work: panoptic boredom. It emerges in that flattening state of specular repetition – a psychic and bodily indigestion which is also a hunger for more visuals to gnaw away at. I’d like to advance the idea that panoptic boredom operates as an extreme foreshadowing of Facebook. Both produce boredom effects by a similar set of imperatives structuring the relation between observer and observed: Looking rates that make possible the surveilling of multiple identities instead of individuals; looking-rules that train the eye to gravitate towards known-in-advance information coordinates; embodied looking-roles that mediate the observer’s position with an interface – a window or a screen.

To feel boredom of any sort presupposes many sorts of privileges. To occupy the panoptic position suggests power. I’m not trying to bemoan the drudgeries of information work or disavow its responsibilities. But as a critical geographer doing whale science, I am beginning to rethink the politics of discipline – all too easily a shock word for me and many of my colleagues. Dedicated scientists who ‘look out’ for animals must pass through panoptic boredom and all its condition forms of neglect, distraction, and imaginative fancy. We need disciplining strategies to perform the identifications necessary to provide space for our companion species, and that means strategies that respect their dramatic ‘nonidentity’ as well – Theodore Adorno’s word for the preponderant ‘thing’ which necessary overcomes its own conceptualization. In their panoptic spatial disciplining, I wonder if critical scientists aren’t in fact performing a kind of suffering – foregoing the depth of their interspecies encounter so that others may find fullness. As scientific activity, panoptic boredom is a like a sigh marking the absence of that feature we should never lose sight of: scientific curiosity.

‘Soundings of Cetaceans’ [a Pilot Study for your consideration]

What follows is a few scrawls about the pilot study I will be conducting in Hartley Bay this summer. This is JUST the pilot study… my intention is to begin with a laboratory study and work outwards from there… Ultimately, I want to trace the dynamic interactions of other institutions, economies, and cosmologies to the happenings of the one I describe here. The enduring thread, as I see it now, is with cultures of sounding and listening; and how a ‘sonic materialism’ connects to political economy in the making of place. Your feedback is welcome! (Speaking of ‘welcomes’, ARTEMIA would like to announce that a new blogger is in the fold – Dawn Hoogeveen!…)


Soundings of Cetaceans

This pilot-study stages an ethnographic encounter with cetology (whale science) and the study of sound. Its aim is to reveal an ‘acoustemology’, a term coined by anthropologist Steven Feld to refer to the “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in culturally particular senses of place…” (Feld, 1996, 91; Feld, 2012). Acoustemologies allow researchers to consider how sound matters to everyday environments; rather than substitute for visualist approaches to knowledge, they encourage investigations which seek to understand how various senses combine to create spatial understanding. My project puts the concept to work at a whale research laboratory, Cetacea Lab, located on a remote island in Caamaano Sound, Northern, BC. Through a seven-week fieldwork residency (August- September 2012), I hope provoke thoughts on how broader knowledges relate to sustained acts of whale listening. In particular, I will pursue two questions 1. how work in acoustemology, hitherto focused on Indigenous encounters in the developing world, can be challenged and extended by an outdoor laboratory science setting, (Feld, 1996, 2003; Daniels, 2008; Maxwell, 2008; Ramnarine, 2009); 2. to understand how Cetacea Lab’s activities produce an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

The central actors of the pilot study are the scientists who conduct Cetacea Lab’s activities. Since 2001, Cetacea Lab scientists have been monitoring whale activity through a network of radio-linked hydrophones, remote observation, and boat-based surveys. Every summer, their efforts are supplemented by two groups of volunteers (5-7 per group), who live at Cetacea Lab for 6-8 week periods (May-July; late July-September). These volunteers provide crucial support for the monitoring activities required during ‘peak’ times of cetacean activity: In late summer especially, Caamano Sound, and neighbouring Campania Sound and Whale Channel play host to an array of migratory and resident fin, humpback, and killer whales variously involved in annual mating, feeding, and socializing… (Ford et al, 1989, 2007). Hearing all the complex sonic activity generated by these creatures is perhaps the most pronounced feature of daily life at Cetacea Lab…


During my stay, I will be interested in assessing how cetology is done: how it is a performed activity. Among my guiding assumptions is the idea that cetology has many features which suggest it as a ‘nomad science’, a term coined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). As Pickering (2010) elaborates: “Royal science is finished science, cold, rigid, formalized and finalized… Nomad science is instead science in action, research science developing in unforeseeable ways — warm and lively, always liable to upset existing arrangements and to suggest new ones” (Pickering, 2010, x)… While cetology enjoys ‘royal’ status in universities and government laboratories, it is marked by internal tensions which have given rise to many ‘nomadic’ activities along its fringes (see: Burnett, 2012; for examples, see Lilly, 1960, 1967; Spong, 1969; McIntyre, 1974; Payne, 1995). Cetacea Lab suggests one good example: a small, non-profit lab headed by two ‘non-expert’ researchers (neither founding member has graduate level training in a scientific discipline) with stated interests in interspecies kinship and New Age intuition; reliant on volunteer work and local collaboration; conducting research marked by an evolving battery of methodological approaches. At the same time, Cetacea Lab engages in activities that place it squarely under the ambit of ‘royal’ science: seeking article publication in accredited journals, submitting evidence to government review panels, arguing for whale conservation strategies… One of my central concerns will be to evaluate how Cetacea Lab’s ‘nomadic’ features articulate with its ‘royal’ ones to shape the roles of listening and sound documentation as place-making forms of knowledge-construction.

Cetology and Cetacea Lab

To better understand how the question of acoustemology relates to Cetacea Lab, then, it is necessary to say a few more words about the discipline of cetology. In what follows, I briefly outline the two contact points that will direct my investigation…

Cetology as a sonic science

Whale science is unique among the biological sciences in its focus on sound. Certainly, this has much to do with the low-resolution watery medium in which its investigations are conducted… but the unique status of whales as “acoustic creatures” must be foregrounded (Burnett, 2012; Schwartz, 2012). Sonic focus is evinced through cetology’s reliance on one technology in particular: the hydrophone. These underwater microphones transform vibrations into signals that can subsequently be rendered into stereo, providing spatial relationships for human ears unable to locate sound-sources underwater (Hohler, 2003; Helmreich, 2006, 2010). Originally developed as military technologies for submarine travel, hydrophones made possible the ‘discovery’ of whale song in the 1950s (Burnett, 2012). The notion of that whales ‘sing’ gestures to a complementary facet of cetology’s sonic interest: this discipline is uniquely concerned with the voice as a vector of knowledge (for the classic study on whale song, see: Payne and McVay, 1971). Studies have argued for the acoustic diversity of whale clans (Ford 1987; 1989), regional groups (McDonald et a, 2007) and interspecies cultures (Noad, 2000; Whitehead and Rendell, 2001); suggested the importance of amplitude for mating displays (Chu and Harcourt, 1986); affirmed its affinities with Sonar technologies (Frazier and Mercado, 2003), and cybernetic models of knowledge (Bateson, 1972; Darling, 2006). While the echo-locative benefits of whale vocalizations are agreed upon by different schools of cetology, key disciplinary tensions persist around the different functions sound plays for whales in general.
…There is much to suggest the prominence of sound in shaping daily life at Cetacea Lab. Hydrophones broadcast sound continuously, and are actively attended to from 5am until midnight by rounds of volunteers. Sounds from all five hydrophones are fed into an audio mixer that enables the simultaneous monitoring of all stations. Three speakers are located within Cetacea Lab’s two buildings and two more lie along the connecting pathway; their combined effect saturates the lab and its environs with the continuous hiss, buzz, and (occasional) wail of underwater acoustic activity. In order to maintain a permanent record of all ‘acoustic encounters’ with cetaceans, and to aid in group identification during subsequent analysis, detected vocalizations are recorded digitally by volunteers from the moment of detection until approximately 20-minutes after the last vocal was heard. These activities are supplemented by an informal sightings network of local fishermen and ecotourism operators who report news over VHF radio, from visual monitoring efforts at the land-based research station, located on the south end of Gil island, and from the research out-camp, (Squally Point).

Hydrophones in Caamano Sound

Cetology as a place making science

As its strong ties to oceanography and naval bioacoustics would suggest, cetology is intensely preoccupied with the geography of its field-engagements — evinced both by its efforts to map the habitats, mating grounds and migratory routes of cetaceans, and by the spatial requirements of its data-gathering infrastructures. Cetology produces place and is itself produced by place; its claims are dependent on the contingencies of whale proximity, the presence/absence of local actors (e.g. large boats); and the resonant features of underwater geologies. Cetology involves the production of networks of data-gathering hydrophones and remote base-camps; in invests in naturalistic observation, surveys, and the extensive mapping of underwater geographies and water-layers. Initial US military interest in cetaceans, a crucial funding source for post-war research efforts, owed largely to the military potentials of whale echolocation (Urick, 1983; Burnett, 2012). Sonar enables objects to be located, identified and tracked by means of those objects’ sonic emissions: Its development would open the ocean to new forms of spatial understanding, themselves shaped by new understandings of the ocean’s sonic qualities… (Shiga, 2012).
Cetacea Lab, established at Taylor Bight, on the southern end of Gil Island, in 2001… engages in various sorts of place-making scientific activities. Since its founding, the lab has conducted over 600 photo-identification-led marine surveys, recorded over three thousand hours of hydrophone activity, and totaled nearly two thousand hours of ‘dedicated searching” (visual observation) (NCCS Evidence, Pt. 1-3, 2012). Boat based efforts between 2004 to 2011 alone totaled 2,174 hours (including 1390 hours of dedicated surveys and 392 hours spent in opportunistic pursuit of Humpback Whale and Killer Whale sightings) (NCCS Evidence, Pt.2, 2012)… Since, 2006 Cetacealab has been collecting data to publish an Abundance paper on Humpback whales from Douglas Channel to Caamano Sound — research which suggests a marked increase in the number of humpbacks using the region as a summer feeding ground…

Caamano Sound


My pilot-study develops a multi-method approach centered on an ethnography of sound (by ‘ethnography’, I mean a combination of site-immersion, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews). Through my residency, I will relate my experiences as a whale listener and Cetacea Lab volunteer with those of the other volunteers and research scientists. These efforts will be supplemented by an archival study of knowledge production at Cetacea Lab — texts, recordings, surveys, blog entries etc. …While the literatures raised in my ‘background’ section will direct my subsequent research activities, my time at Cetacea Lab will immerse me in the everyday duties of a fully functioning lab, and it these activities that I chose to focus on in this study.

This pilot study has four main objectives:

– To document the history and structure of the Cetacea Lab project, and to clarify the different parties that are involved in and contributing to it;
– To document how technologically-mediated sound (inc. whale vocalization) is broadcast, attended to, textualized, and enlisted in Cetacea Lab’s scientific projects (e.g. taxonomies of ‘mating call,’ ‘social,’ ‘bubble net feeding’ etc.)
– To examine — through participant observation, semi-structured interviews and personal reflection — how cultural appraisals of whale sound shape the production scientific knowledge at Cetacea Lab.
– To assess how the above three features articulate an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

... and so on! I depart for my field-work July 24, taking the Port Hardy Ferry to Rupert and the Metlakata Express from there down the Hartley Bay. I’ll bring microphones, clothes, sun-tan lotion and Melville’s Billy Budd (read that other one). Despite such preparations and precautions, I expect only to be confused and unready upon arrival — the only way to be, some would say! Stay tuned for my special ARTEMIA installment, ‘Cetacea-Blog,’ to be initiated once I’m up there and have found my bearings…

The Sound and the Fury and the whirry (and the worry)

This past month, I spent many an evening hour working in a large and low-lit basement wood-shop just off East Hastings.  I was slowly building my first wood table, though by the end of my sessions I was often scuttling boards at random between the planer, jointer, and electric sander, each one generating a different sonic blast in their promise to edge off whatever irregularity the project was giving me. Enough back and forth between the machines would have me feeling tired and foggy, the productivity dipping steadily. Even though I always wore a dust mask, and was alert to the presence of certain odours and the possibilities of fires (a beginner here), I tended to follow the experienced carpenters in the space and neglect my earbuds except under very loud circumstances. In part this was because I loved what the room was giving me: the interclatter of old machinery, the generator’s low throb, the sudden rush of the pipes, and all sorts of lively sounds —  beneath floorboards, in adjacent rooms — I couldn’t attribute purpose to.  The spooky basement would be rumbling with the energy of a thunderstorm at times. Perhaps this is why it always took me the longest to come to my aural senses, to realize that the noise really wasn’t helping the work. I may have even lost a few frequencies of audibility in the process.

Many people spend entire lives in indoor environments like this one. As someone who studies the health of outdoor environments — or is attempting to at least — I’ve come to find it interesting how few scholars come to consider the indoor ones we so often inhabit. To give interior spaces an environmental perspective, in other words, and not just a social diagnosis involving chemicals and carincogens. One great, recent, exception (and one I’ve parroted about enough lately) is Michelle Murphy, whose book Sick Building Syndrome (Duke, 2006), looks at the construction of indoor environments in large 1970s office buildings.  But the person I want to showcase here had something to say about the sonic qualities of indoor environments — not just with the music one chooses to play, in other words, but all the humming, bleeping and grating socionatural energy that makes industrial labor possible. That person is Raymond Hetu, a little known acoustician and social scientist who taught at the University of Montreal in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hetu wrote about statistics like: “60% of the American industrial workforce was exposed to sound levels capable of hearing damage” and inferences like: “worker demand for hearing protection is very low in Quebec, despite various sustained effects.” Hetu, who died in 1995, left behind some interesting thoughts on a topic that deserves closer examination.

Raymond Hetu

He was the first scholar to frame factory noise as a problem that demanded an ecological response. Writing with William Noble in 1994, Hetu made the point that noise induced hearing loss in factories is mistakenly treated as an individual problem, when the fragmentation of the social body as a result of the noise — through loss of communicative ability, diminished spatial awareness, shame and isolation — is what really needs attention: “An ecological approach pays attention to the interactions among all relevant components in an ecosphere.” Accordingly: “This approach allows the concept of disability (usually thought of as a property of the individual) to be replaced, for the purpose of analysis, with that of the system as a whole providing conditions that are enabling or disabling.” When agency is attached to buildings, it is usually in the form of responsive visual interfaces or green walls. What Hetu and Noble want is a sort of cultural ecology of indoor sound environments, one in which individuals provide live feedbacks into the entire modulating sound-system whose regulation demands social and technical forms of responsibility.

Hetu seemed personally disturbed by the fact that noise induced hearing loss was so seldom discussed by anyone.  In a set of articles he wrote shortly before his death, Hetu considered the way industrial hearing conversation policies are black boxed. Armed with a deep knowledge of otology (the ear), he recognized the dangers of simply quantifying noise limits when other factors (exposure time, individual capacity, overall environmental conditions) were at play. He was keen to suggest that discourses of masculinity were actively encouraged for enduring high sound levels and avoiding the dainty application of earbuds. Compensatory regimes minimized corporate risk by insisting on direct causal relationships for a condition (hearing loss) recognized as late-onset and cumulative. Digging into the some of the literature published by the industry-friendly American Academy of Ophthamology and Otolaryngology (AAOO), Hetu unearthed policies insisting that for factory workers, certain sensory capacities were actually superfluous. For Marxists concerned with the ways the worker’s body is drained of its labor power by the capitalist mode of production, alarm bells should be ringing here. Indeed, Hetu was up in arms at the fact that so many unions remained uninterested in an issue that was causing such harm to their members.

People with hearing impairments tend to put a brave face on their conditions, and their friends often tease them about it, but its a scary thing. Especially as we grow old, as it combines with other social issues and diminished physical abilities — ageism in the workplace is an increasingly recognized social problem. I suspect its those things, like hearing, that others can treat so lightly that gives it its cruel underside.  Fifteen years ago, Hetu proposed a dynamic model of noise regulation — in which changes to the acoustic environment are governed not by objective limits, but characteristics of human capacities (communication and consultation, for instance) — that still stands out as respectful and attentive in a way our general cultural attitudes aren’t. From my brief wood-shop experience, these barriers seem pretty hard to remove, and other hazards justifiably deserve more direct immediate attention too. Blocking out your ears isn’t always the answer though. For me at least, the balance that has to be struck is between being able to listen to the lively energy of the interior environments we create and co-constitute, and being able to listen period.



It was hard not to notice the importance of Kevin Durant’s arms over OKC’s incredible comeback against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA semis. The things were everywhere — intercepting passing lanes, flicking 3 pointers, leading the break. The 6’9 shooting guard reportedly has a 7’5 wingspan, which puts his extensions in rare company for a player at any position. It is for these reasons and the inviting fact of his last name that the multi-skilled scoring machine often goes by nickname alone: “Durantula.”

There are all sorts of great nicknames in the NBA, from the domestic “Hibachi” (Gilbert Arenas), to the goofy “Round Mound of Rebound” (Charles Barkley), to the supremely self-evident — “#23.” Even if we go by one category — say, ‘animate nicknames’, for the sake of this blog’s focus — the NBA offers much in the way of choice. Many fall in the ‘animal-hustle’ category: Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams; Dan “the Horse” Issel; Craig “Rhino” Smith; Ken “The Animal” Bannister.  Another broad category is ‘animal-predator’: While Trevor “Cobra” Ariza packs a poisonous punch for opposing defenses, far deadlier is the “Black Mamba,” aka Kobe Bryant (though we should also note his dialectical opposite, Brian “White Mamba” Scalabrine, is anything but). A third category is the animal-as-cartoon, like Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire, giving you way more than his 5’9 frame would suggest, or Toni “The Pink Panther” Kukoc who was smooth and Euro-effeminate, or Jim “Kangaroo Kid” Pollard’s name should need no explanation.  A fourth is not ‘animal’ but bio-mechanical: here we have LeBron “L-Train” James, Vince Carter (“half man half amazing”), Dwight Howard (“Superman”), and the grandaddy of the self-appointed NBA nickname, Shaquille “Shaq Diesel” O’Neal (aka “Shaq Fu”, “The Big Aristotle”, “Superman”, “The Big Maravich”, “The Big Felon”, “The Big Cactus”, “The Big Cordially”, and “The Big Shamrock”). By far the best grouping is ‘miscellaneous animal.’ My all time favorite belongs to the mysterious Bill Mlkvy, who played less than one season in 1982, and was called “The Owl without a Vowel” for what seem to be purely mnemonic reasons. The jury may still be out on the Loch Ness monster but it certainly ain’t about the game of John Brockman, aka “The Brockness Monster” (because he so rarely surfaced on the court during games). Streetball legend Earl “the Goat” Manigault was neither of the NBA nor the animal kingdom, but he was considered by some to be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T).

Now the world of NBA nicknames is interesting enough, but it relates to something I find to be much more so: the world of NBA tattoos. Back to “Durantula” here. The OKC star was recently involved in something of a controversy over his secretive deployment of ink. His spider arms are clean, as the photo indicates, but his chest and back are all tattied up. In fact, there’s a fascinatingly weird world down there: a Wallgreens logo, a sort of ‘Little House of the Prairie’ with a pioneer home, trees, and a baby Durant; some scripture; Wanda mother’s name, a cross… there’s also a massive state of Maryland on his back. Durant isn’t alone in his choice of unsual torso tatts — Gilbert Arenas has the face of giant tiger across his chest (with black nipples for eyes); Monta Ellis recently inserted a Tree of Life rendering that extends across his arms; and in what is perhaps the ugliest of them all, Andrei “AK-47” Kirilenko has the World of Warcraft dragon emblazoned across his entire Russified backside.

The symbolic logic of Kevin Durant

Gilbert Arenas

Monta Ellis

So why would Durant hide his? They have been described by some as “business tattoos,” the insinuation being that one of the league’s biggest rising stars doesn’t want to jeopardize his marketability by marking up his lineaments.  Less than 15% NBA players had tattoos at the outset of the 1990s.  By 2002, the number spiked to 50%. Many of the NBA’s other highly marketable stars — Lebron, Wade, Kobe — are all filled with exposed tattoos, but Durant can have a squeaky clean image if he wants it. Its an interesting decision on his part — and one many of his best rivals — Blake Griffin, John Wall, and  Durant’s teammate, Russell Westbrook — have chosen to follow as well.

In a sports world full of canned promo and potted interviews, the highly regulated body of the NBAer is a fascinating site for the convergence of all sorts of cultural-economic forces — from health insurance to hip hop.  Tattoos reveal how iterative and self-reflexive the branding process really is — and how much more is at stake than simplistic accounts of self-commodification would suppose.  In a now decade-old piece for the Village Voice, David Shields notes that players of body-contact sports opt for tattoos far more than those in non-contact sports (eg. baseball, tennis).   There is no better example of this than the NBA. For many NBA players, tattoos describe maps of self-narrativization that speak in ways they never would. A wide array of tropes are written across the skins of any number of players: the grieving son, the grieving sibling, the family breadwinner, the state hero, the shoe rep, the former thug, the current thug, the rich man, the black man, the spiritual man. And once the ink dries to face the world, tattoos combine with the nicknames, the marketing of the nicknames through the shoes (like Durant’s Adidas Predator), the trademark spin-moves, the overly-speculated upon injuries, the Gatorade consumption —  to spiral outwards to the relatives, the fans, the hangers-on, the agents, the video-game designers, the executives, and so on. NBA bodies occupy a site within something largely understudied in the social sciences despite its centrality to American social life: the intersection of race, representation, and sport.

No one player was more responsible for the mainstreaming of the NBA tattoo than Allen Iverson (my personal G.O.A.T., for what its worth). Iverson, whose cat-like quickness made him unguardable, and at six feet 165 pounds has been called the “pound-for-pound most gifted and fearless guard to ever play pro basketball,” entered the league in 1996 with single marking on his right arm and a two-word inscription beneath it. The bulldog tattoo branded him as a Georgetown Hoya, and the “the Answer” became both his self-appointed nickname and best selling shoe.  He was product of a 15 year old mother and had two counts of gun-possession to his name before he turned 21. While many players’ would permit theirs some wackiness after they got rich, Iverson’s tattoos remained painfully self-revealing: “F.A.M.E” (Fuck all my Enemies); “RA Boogie”  (a childhood friend who was shot); “Only the Strong Survive”;“Loyality;” “Money Bagz.”

Allen Iverson

Over the course of his NBA career, Iverson’s body got many more tattoos and became involved in many more controversies — over skull-caps and cornrows, jewelry and rap skills, and somewhat hilariously — practice. His 2001 outburst upon hearing that the NBA’s Hoop Magazine had airbrushed his tattoos off a photograph of him for a magazine cover, was memorable and justified:  “That’s not right. Hey, I am who I am. You can’t change that. Who gives them the authority to remake me? Everybody knows who Allen Iverson is. That’s wild. That’s kind of crazy…. They don’t have the right to try to present me in another way to the public than the way I truly am without my permission. It’s an act of freedom and a form of self-expression.”

Iverson played fearlessly and wildly selfishly at times, winning scoring championships despite limited surrounding talent. He played through a tailbone contusion, a right shoulder dislocation, multiple broken fingers, and fractured left hand.  Like his tattoos, Inverson’s body was used to sell other products and to be consumed as one.  It will bear these decisions for the rest of its life cycle.  Now 38 and unable to secure another NBA contract despite a stated willingness to play anywhere, Iverson will have watch the Durantula & Co. finals as a spectator.  Though its widely speculated he really needs the money, its a shame no one signed him because you know he would have given his all regardless.  As much as I am awed at the physical abilities of these players, nothing replaces their story-lines.










Real Aliens

I can’t wait to see Prometheus, the fifth installment of the epic Aliens movies. I’ve spent chunks of the previous two evenings re-watching parts one and two, pouring over H.R. Giger’s creepy sketches online, and fantasizing about the “face-hugger mask” I could to design and wear to the theatre on June 8th.

It struck me how much the pronounced vertebrae and pointed tails of the alien resemble those of the brine shrimp adorning Artemia’s front page. Further research led to an interesting discovery: both aliens and brine shrimp have an amazing ability to produce eggs that can be left dormant for long periods and “hatched on demand.”  Both species are hyper-resilient, and able to subsist in various atmospheric conditions. In their different worlds, both species are profoundly involved in what Bruno Latour has called “laboratory life”  — places where the production of life, value and scientific knowledge are actualized. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but the point is straightforward enough: I don’t think any of these connections is coincidental. American pop culture knows very little about the world of brine shrimp (“artemia”), but it has an idealargely informed by good sci-fi — of what it should think of all the shadow activity transpiring upon  them and similar life forms. I’m suggesting the Alien movies cast moral-epsitemological light upon the varied practices (bioprospecting, bioassays etc.) shaping contemporary incursions into the production of life and value. Consider this my sketch for the world Prometheus.

The Alien economy of reproduction.

The key, of course, is the egg, the ultimate symbol of life’s value and the ultimate symbol of life’s brutality in the Alien movies.  The egg internalizes the alien economy of reproduction, one which is exploitative, parasitic, and unflinchingly cruel: find a host, invade, use its life, unleash the beast within, repeat. And if there is one word which I think helps understand why this process is so scary in the films, its this one: ‘metabolism.’ Metabolism can refer to the set of chemical reactions that happen in the cells of living organisms in order to sustain life. For Marx, metabolism can be used in a social sense, to describe the “material interchange” or “exchange of matter” that takes places between humans and nature. The alien egg describes the fascinating interconnections between both.

Eggs in general tells us a lot about the ways contemporary economies work: producing life and squeezing productivity out of life, processes resulting in phase shifts in our worldly epistemologies and bodily constitutions — see Kaushik Rajan’s recent talk for more on this.  For Marx, the whole point of talking about metabolism was to describe the problems of capitalism — its characteristic feature of a “metabolic rift.” Capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,” he writes. Its certainly possible to read Alien as a horror of male pregnancy — of man going into labor — but I’m suggesting its the other way around as well: its labor, alien labor, going into man, man who suddenly becomes the material substrate for the alien’s “form giving fire.” What could better combine Marx’s “metabolic rift” with the terrifying implications of capitalism’s growing interest in the body as its new site of value production than the blood-spattered, chest-popping emergence of the alien life-form from the value-depleted human corpus?

Alien meets crew: "my compliments to the chef"

Alien (1979) gets the anxiety going at high boil.  We begin in a world we are actually pretty familiar with: recall that the people responding to the distress signal are the agents of industrial capital: the working- class miners of the Nostromo. Their journey into the silent planetary underworld describes a society’s general entree into a new bio-economy. This is rendered quite stunningly as the Cain descends into the depths of the “alienated” ship. The dark endoskeletized stuff growing across all the infrastructure anticipates the way human bodies will get metabolized by alien bio-power.  And frankly, its these interior shots that made the first watching of Alien (me, age 8) so damn scary — the movie seems to have drawn more from the sweaty underbelly of feminist Minimalism — say, Eva Hesse or Louise Bourgeois — than the masculine geometry of other sci-fi movies: Star Trek, 2001 etc. It works with a whole new cultural logic of bodily anxiety, one which has had a huge effect on all the sci-fi horror lexicon since – Tremors (1990), Species (1994), Mimic (1997) etc.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Western science came to believe that parasites were separate creatures rather than manifestations of moral malaise generated within the body.  Alien puts us back in that earlier more doubtful period. It does this by asking us to consider the ambivalence of man’s metabolizing mission (miners, after all). Turns out they dig too deep.  And because of what happens, we are able to see how humans sociality really is, at its base, pretty nasty. Time and time again ‘the company’ will screw over the crew  — via the Android, Ash (Ian Holm), in Alien; or Burke (Paul Reiser), the executive, in Aliens; or the creepy doctor Gediman (Brad Dourif), in Resurrection. The morality of capitalism is always called into question via a company spokesperson. “Is this going to be another bug hunt?” Hudson (Bill Paxson) asks imperialistically in Aliens (1986). Successful parasites are ones that go unnoticed by the host body. For all his hubris, Hudson becomes the first one to crack, the first Marine to question the parasitic social relation he serves — disavowing the mission in memorable fashion (“Game over man, game over!”).

Hudson is overwhelmed. Again.

Recall all those laboratory scenes throughout the Alien movies; clearly scientists are fascinated by the thing.  As with artemia, the real value of the aliens is not in the beauty of their biological feat-of-life. Rather its in their industrial use-value –in the aliens’ case, as biological weaponry.  “At least they don’t fuck each other for a goddamn percentage,” an exasperated Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) tells us at one point.  To cope with all the exploitation, Ripley, our moral compass, has to go from outrage at the humans to a severely compromised one herself. Her metabolic transformations can be read as a purposeful alienation from comprised human sociality. This builds slowly, in the first movie it is revealed through her special compassion with another non-human – Jones the cat. In Aliens (1986), Ripley shows her willingness to adjust her humanity by going cyborg — donning a giant robot-like cargo-loader unit, and eventually beating an Alien Queen with it.  In Alien 3 (1992), she participates directly in the metabolic exchange. In its final scene, she accepts the destruction of her humanity, thrusting herself religiously into a pit of fire.  But escape from capitalism’s metabolic relation isn’t easy: in Resurrection greedy scientists on the space station Auriga cloned her back to life to crossbreeding tests on other humans. And because Ripley had the alien inside her, the new Ripley is transformed:  super-strong, acid-veined, needlessly tempermental.

"Think you know how much Reality Bites, bitch?"

The alienation of Ripley is essential for her survival in society, but so is humanization of the alien. By the time of Resurrection (1997), the alien metabolism has been transformed in turn — the Alien queen now possesses a womb: it can give birth to live offspring without the need for eggs and human hosts. From this new metabolism emerges a new being — the Alien Queen/Ripley spawn.  Appropriately, its humanization contributes to its heightened terror: traditionally, parasites are not out to get humans; for many of them we are irrelevant or inadvertent objects to metabolize with. This is the impression we are left with in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) even to a certain extent up to Alien 3 (1992) — where the suffering of the innocent dog has us a little less convinced. But Alien Queen/Ripley-spawn in Resurrection (1997) seems to enjoy popping heads and observing the bloody remains. Ripley’s compassion for her offspring’s death — sucked, as always out of the airlock — has us feeling even more unsettled.

Its possible to read the awesome Alien movies in so many ways: as anxieties over motherhood and pregnancy, as warnings of scientific triumphalism, mediations on the new art of war, explorations into the sociologies of deep space discovery. I’m suggesting that we can also trace in them shifting anxieties over the metabolisms of life and the economies covering the bodies of brine shrimp and humans with sticky, slimy, and salivating forms of labor. The arc that I trace in the Alien movies suggests that this gradual merging of industrial capital and life sciences upholds not so much aliens, but the process of alienation — the external undoing of an internal self-recognition applicable to all species — as the truly freaky proposition.





Give the Whale Some?

What sort of songwriting credit did the whale get? It’s a legit question for a good hundred or so albums released in the 1970s. Ceta-voices feature centrally in the classical composer Alan Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” (1970); they duet in Paul Horn’s smooth jazz classic Paul Horn and Haida (1974); they playfully intersperse throughout Fifth Beatle George Martin’s nature rich Icarus (1972). Ceta-sounds describe a whole sampling blitzkrieg for pop singers (Joan Collins), hard rockers (Jethro Tull); classical composers (Toru Takamitsu), and jazzmen (Paul Winter).  The Seventies was the decade of ceta-song, and its motherlode was Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970) the instructively titled album of recordings that got nominated for a Grammy 1970 and remains the highest selling nature album ever made. Spectrographic analysis had led the recording team of Roger Payne and Scott McVay to conclude that the patterns of squeaks and mumbles had a songlike structure.  While some reviewers were clearly confused by the deep groans and plaintive squeaks —  “music that might have come from the throat of a 40 ton canary to the rumble of a stupendous Model T with a crack muffler” said one — good ol’ Rolling Stone got it nailed: “This is a good record, dig?… Its especially good for late at night and peaceful, together moments. It stretches your mind to encompass alien art forms.”

The motherlode: "Songs of the Humpback Whale" (1970)

As Jon Carroll’s words suggest, much of this whale-sampled music is best understood under the trope of New Age, as part of a ferment that included Joan Ocean’s Dolphins into the Future, with its Hawaiian ‘pod’ sociology and its theory of “sound holography” (cetacean communication); Joan McIntyre’s anthology Mind in the Waters, with its voluptuous descriptions of interspecies encounters; and John Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin, which sought to develop the insights of dolphin research for extra-terrestrial communication. I’ve been going through the music archive as part of a larger research project about whales and the BC coast. Not such much the big name stuff, but the cottage industry that followed it: the cassettes and blank CDRs that still fill meditation room closets. Subliminal messages, echoes, trance chords, synths, voices from the deep – its all in the grammar of New Age whale music.

Vibe man Dane Spotts released "Ultra Mediation IV: Cetacean Mind Link" in 1984.

My early conclusion from listening? Truly, its about the vibes. Grasping the “vibe” is almost like doing everything but listen for the signal. Grasping the “vibe” is about becoming conscious of the conditioning exchanges between self and environment given through the vibratory media. “Vibes” collapse subject-object distinctions, they render consciousness infrastructural to an entire social sensorium.  This is what makes them great for socializing behaviors: ceta-sounds enable your Downward Dog to happen, they let those minutes fly off the waiting room clock and get you to let go and enjoy that rub. Sometimes the whale calls are just too wild, too interesting — they make you pay attention–  but most of the time the drones and the compressed synths just get you easy. My current favorite is Dane Spott’s 1984 tape Ultra Mediation IV- Cetacean Mind Link. “Words can hardly describe the experience, it was like taking a two-week vacation in 28 minutes!” Words from Dane Spotts himself, a man who clearly got the vibe he was transmitting.

Yes! From the music video "Don't Kill the Whales" (1978)

New Age whale music was more than a few bottled mating calls, it was a whole freaky style. The painful lyrics of the terrible Yes! music video are worth the price of admission alone, but substitute the splashy slo-mo breach of a humpback’s fluke with a pair of boobs and the “cetaesthetic” suddenly describes another cultural logic.  A sizable chunk of New Age suggests close cousinhood with the equally-ocean obsessed “bikini-core” industry that flourished on the West Coast in the early 80s.  In both cases, good feelings, energy, and the mythos of the body grace drive hedonistic, cosmetic, and objectifying impulses to feel real goodRebecca Solnit has found parallel logics in the waterfalls of great American landscape photographers and the centerfolds of Playboy magazines. The ‘whale porn’ stretch isn’t a hard one to make… “There goes a narwhal Here comes a bikini whale!” sang the B-52s in 1979.

New Age’s DIY capitalism would be subsumed within the mainstream music industry by the late 1980s, but the pre-botox, post-modern sounds of its Seventies heyday are still very much alive. Meditation products combining whale song and mantras are easily found online.  “Children’s whale music” promising better behavior and quicker to-bed times get reviewed in Science Journals. Meanwhile, as Simon Reynolds notes in his 2011 book, Retromania, a whole ‘New New Age’ of experimental musicians have begun to champion the cosmic loops and melodies of the 80s-processesed whale voices. James Ferraro, White Rainbow, Onenhetrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source, Emeralds, Ossining, and Grouper are just a few of the more prominent names. No doubt in parallel reaction to the digitization of the musical commodity, this movement covets the informal exchange of mix tapes, with their warm analogue hiss and decay; the earnest mantras about mindfulness. The semi-undergroundedness of the scene is easily observed online, in the rich blogger culture that combines the new stuff with the ‘Old New Age’ iconography of rainbows, dream vessels, mandalas, and cetaceans.

Perhaps the most pertinent theme the recent stuff makes clear (if only cynically)  is how much New Age really encourages its instrumentalities to shine through: the very spirit of the genre, Douglas McGowan has observed, lies in entrepreneurialism. Alongside their sounds, many of the early New Age practitioners were selling a whole spiritual home-brew: personal messages, suggested postures, breathing programs, massage products etc. A big problem with the employment animal-sounds and all their supposed renderings of Gaia-conscious guilt, then, is how eagerly they exploit a general economy of stress.  New Age sounds and whale-song tapes sooth the city-dweller with a dose of ersatz tranquility. Meanwhile, the rise in boat traffic brought upon increasingly cute-ified, discovery tour-watched, hydrophone mic’ed ocean mammals has introduced a new problematic of ambient noise into their already precarious environments. The resultant stress has become a big problem.

Some of the early recorders clearly had loftier ambitions in mind when they advocated that ‘society’ take seriously the song of the whales. “We have learned,” Roger Payne said upon the release of Songs of the Humpback Whales, “that all men are created equal, but the whales remind us that all species are created equal—that every organism on earth, whether large or small, has an inalienable right to life.” But the welfare of the animal singers is totally unquestioned throughout the vast majority of the New Age hullabaloo (old or new). Sure, there’s environmentalized-concern, there’s good vibes, but what about “Who was that I was listening to? Are they still in captivity today?” “Did they benefit in the slightest from this sharing of their voice?” Not so much.  The US Marine Mammal Protection Act (1973) and Greenpeace (1975) may have slowed the whaling, but the sonic thievery has continued unabated.

Thoreau: “Can he who has discovered only the values of the whale bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?” Fortunately for Thoreau’s unoiled skin and brittle bones, it would be another 100 years before they got going on spiritual massage.