Small-Gauge Attunements for Critical Knowledge Making

Jen Heuson continues our ongoing roundtable by raising the question of "attunement": do small-gauge methods afford critical faculties to the scholar that would be unavailable otherwise?
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I thought about titling my second post “How To Study the Atmosphere” because this phrase seems to aptly articulate many of the important goals of small-gauge scholarship discussed thus far. Small-gauge scholars try to understand how worlds are made. They dissect the environmental and ordinary. They listen to and look for the rhythmic patterns of everyday living. And, they do this by making their bodies and their experiences tedious and strange. In short, they work hard at making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Our discussions here have excellently described how and why small-gauge tools and approaches are particularly suited to this task. In my own post, I argued that an ethos of care, duration, brokenness, forgetfulness, and rebelliousness aptly describes small-gauge studying and making. But, what exactly does small-gauge scholarship produce? What does it do that traditional (or “large-gauge”) scholarship cannot? What does it access and afford? Small-gauge scholars are, after all, knowledge makers, but what sorts of knowledge do they make?

Each of us will, no doubt, answer this question very differently, responding to our own work conditions and goals. But, like traditional scholars and artists, we will need to make claims about the world and arguments about why our claims are valid. We will need to say what we’ve accomplished with our tedious and circuitous meanderings and why these accomplishments are important. We will need to publish our work, present at conferences, and answer questions from our sometimes-bewildered audiences. We will need to convince others that altering the scale, scope, and pace of our making significantly alters what we make. And, we will need to convince them that intervening in this form-content relation is of the utmost importance. Ultimately, we will need to convince others that we are making entirely new faculties for understanding the world.

My own approach to making these faculties has varied. In my work with Kevin, we take up the asynchronous ear-eye relationships afforded by super-8mm’s “silence” as a way to make new ways of listening to and looking at the world.1Heuson, Jennifer and Kevin T. Allen. “Asynchronicity: Rethinking the Relation Between Eye and Ear in Ethnographic Practice.” In Experimental Film and Anthropology, 113-130. Edited by Arnd Schneider and Caterina Pasqualino. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. We use the form’s ability to record sound and image separately as a means to, in a sense, “remix” our perceptions of and encounters with the things around us. These remixes are attempts to articulate the nuanced atmospheres we are documenting or, more accurately, the “atmospheric attunements” of the peoples, places, and things we encounter. To borrow from anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, atmospheric attunements can be thought of as “lived compositions” or processes of “sensual world-making.”2Stewart, Kathleen C. “Atmospheric Attunements.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 29:3 (2011): 445-453. Our small-gauge goal, however, is not simply to document these compositions or processes but to generate interventions that might alter how they are understood politically and ethically.

In my dissertation research, I focused quite literally on attunement as a tune or tuning.3 For a brief explanation of the dissertation, see: Heuson, Jen. 2015. “On Hearing Together Critically: Making Aural Politics Sensible Through Art & Ethnography.” EthnoScripts 17:1 (2015): 74-95. I think of it as a “stance of the ears” that is intimately linked to embodiment as the joining of the material and the immaterial. I also think of it as inheritable, as something we receive from ancestors and pass along to descendants. But I only came to these thoughts through small-gauge scholarship, through a tedious and meandering study of one particular atmosphere and of the ways this atmosphere is managed in order to produce specific attunements. In the Black Hills of South Dakota, aural conflicts between sounds, noises, and silences are at the heart a billion-dollar tourist industry. They are also foundational to a frontier mythos that reproduces various forms of aural colonization, including Native cultural appropriation and urban resource extraction. What small-gauge scholarship afforded me, in this case, was the faculty to engage the frontier tourist experience being made in South Dakota not as a natural or benign embodiment, but as one fraught with ethical and political implications. In short, it enabled me to hear how an atmosphere was being preserved along racial and regional lines to continue long histories of colonization.

I would like to end my post with an aural example that I hope will offer an embodiment of the questions and claims raised here. The clip was recorded in the (now) small mountain town of Lead, South Dakota on July 4, 2013. Lead is located just three miles from Deadwood and houses the infamous Hearst Homestake Gold Mine, the largest and longest-running gold mine in the Western hemisphere. Once a bustling little metropolis, Lead is now home to a few thousand people and is in the midst of an important atmospheric shift. The mine, which closed in 2002, now offers its underground caverns for dark matter experiments and neutrino scientists. It also boasts one of the loudest fireworks displays in the nation over its Open Cut. The noise is incredible, exploding out from the Cut to resonate throughout the valley, literally vibrating the entire town. It is both a violent production of what R. Murray Schafer calls “sacred noise” and means of extracting American “spirit” from the Cut, a spirit that relies on the haunting silence of the sacred Lakota stones it explodes each year.4Schafer, R. Murray. 1993 [1977]. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.

Photo by James St. John


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