One of most central questions of art and cultural studies remains the problem of bridging the gulf between theory and practices. This proposal will make a new opening into this problematics. Soundscapes and Cultural Sustainability proceeds from the theoretical concerns of acoustemology and social ecology of sound: dimensions of practical knowledge that come from the auditory habitus, the ordinary business of listening as a way of knowing place. The art and cultural studies malaise presented above is being offered the antidose of participatory soundscape ethnography, closely detailed, grounded and agent-centred study of auditory practical knowledge in European villages and small towns. 

This proposal is based on three earlier Finnish soundscape projects: (1) Acoustic Environments in Change (AEC) focused on transitions in the soundscapes of six European villages; (2) Sonic Memories and Emplaced Pasts in European Villages (SMEP) and (3) One Hundred Finnish Soundscapes. The project group at hand forms a developing international, interdisciplinary research network. It is of outmost importance that the earlier research can now be used in order to solve the emerged theoretical and practical questions, aiming to support the innovative practices of different communities.  

We consider it not only important but possible to bear in mind the political and economic structures, which both limit and enhance the ways in which people have impact on their sonic environment.  However, one of the basic ideas of the project is that we must always be aware of the multiple ways in which people both consciously and unconsciously use sounds in creating their meaningful lived spaces, rather than just passively succumb to the sonic environment as victims of 'noise'. 

The research group has the foundations on which to construct the strategies for local action for improving sustainable qualities of acoustic environments in different European areas, even at the Eastern border area of Europe, Istanbul. Following questions and thematics have been chosen and distilled from our earlier research findings: 
  1. Children, young people and lived acoustic environments
  2. The commodification of silence and tourism
  3. Places of difference making: public and private soundscapes in Istanbul. 
  4. Participatory research, co-production of knowledge and ethical questions.
The project will develop the theory and methods of participatory cultural ethnography, but it will also have practical final outcomes. As part of them, the degree of soundscape awareness in the regions studied will be at higher level than it is now. The community planners have a clearly improved idea about the needs and meaningfulness of soundscapes, those of especially young people and children. Thus the communities will have much better cultural prerequisites to maintain and create soundscapes that contribute to a high quality of lived environments. 

Background of the project

Finnish cultural researchers have recently claimed that the society has disappeared from cultural studies. They have begun to seek it using an approach which, translated literally, means ’worldly research’. (Järviluoma & Leppänen 2004, Herkman & al. 2006; see also Jokinen 2006) Cultural scholar Lawrence Grossberg (2005; see also Ferguson & Golding 1997) has, as well, stressed our position as intellectuals and researchers. According to him it is up to researchers to gain a better understanding about “what is happening”.

The everyday soundscapes of our societies are very often characterised by high volume noise. When analysing soundscapes culturally, it is important to keep in mind the ‘worldly’ in many senses of the word. Firstly, we consider it not only important but possible to bear in mind the political and economic structures, which both limit and enhance the ways in which people have impact on their sonic environment.  Secondly, one of the basic ideas of the project is that we must always be aware of the multiple ways in which people both consciously and unconsciously use sounds in creating their meaningful lived spaces, rather than just passively succumb to the sonic environment as ‘victims of noise’.

The theoretical framework of acoustemology, sound as a way of knowing the world (i.e. acoustic epistemology), as developed by the anthropologist of sound Steven Feld (1996) is central for us in our concern not to exteriorize the location of knowledge and practices from research. In the current project we aim to theorize local listeners as indigenous acoustic historians (Feld 2008; listen also Feld & Järviluoma 2008). The last mentioned dimension must to be the central focus here: dimension of practical knowledge that comes from the auditory habitus, the ordinary business of listening as a way of knowing place.

When we listen to the politics of soundscape, it is clear that not all people, at all times of history, have the same opportunity of “composing” their soundscapes. The idea of a soundscape as an immense composition in which we can all participate, belongs to a somewhat idealistic rhetoric. Gregg Wagstaff (2002) has argued that the concept ‘acoustic ecology’ does not stress enough the sociality of ecology. He suggests that we should rather talk about the ‘social ecology of sound’. People interpret, for example, an unpleasant sonic environment in different ways, and have basically three options: to change it, to ignore it, or to leave it. (bid; cf. Ampuja 2005.)

To us it is important to understand the tensions between acting subjects and the societal structural frames.  Environmental scholars and philosophers have argued that if researchers stress too much the structures, globality and relationships between states, the environmental questions become ”too big for a human being”. In such a model the possibility of even reflecting on sensible local solutions gets lost (Lähde 2005, s.152; see also Kinnunen 2006; Ingold 2000). Thus, sustainability demands local solutions, as is evident from the arguments of the landscape architectural researcher Joan Nassauer (1997). In connection with manufactured landscapes she has discussed her notion of "cultural sustainability" arguing that landscapes that attract human admiration may be more likely to survive than landscapes that do not. This may be achieved, as the environmental aesthetician Yrjö Sepänmaa insists, through aestheticians working in co-operation with nature protectors, architects, ecologists, restorers, builders, foresters so that their knowledge remains linked with practical abilities (Sepänmaa 1993, 157; see also Saito 2005).

This project proceeds from these assumptions. R. Murray Schafer originally developed soundscape studies, when he noticed that talking too much about noise made his students feel powerless. The same has been noted by the environmental philosopher Arne Naess: too much negative information increases pessimism (see for example Naess 1999). When soundscape is listened only as such massive unwanted noise that the local communities and acting subjects cannot in any way affect it, people become indifferent. They don’t even try to act.  The social ecology of sound means that we have to seriously take into consideration the local acoustemologies. Knowing and becoming aware of indigenous acoustic histories and interpretations is the first step towards the possible sustainable soundscapes.

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