The sounds of a place can reveal what it is made up of: the infrastructures, lines of power and governance, bodies, and ideologies of a place, and how they move in relation to one another, all make audible conditions of social, political, economic and cultural production. By listening to these relations, it is possible to get a sense of the multiple terrains that comprise such places and the atmospheres they engender (Thibaud 2011); sounds can help in understanding how place is made, unmade and remade. Through careful listening it is possible to encounter sounding as a way of “knowing,” as an acoustemology or acoustic epistemology, an idea developed by Steve Feld during his work in Papua New Guinea. For Feld, acoustemology is the “potential of acoustic knowing, of sounding as a condition of and for knowing, of sonic presence and awareness as potent shaping forces in how people make sense of experiences” (1996: 97). Put simply, acoustemology asks: what kinds of meanings, knowledges, values, communications, identities are afforded through sonic practices and forms of representation (Rice 2003)?
In this paper I will focus on the site of Rajarhat New Town, a newly developing satellite town in West Bengal, constructed upon histories of land grabs and mass dispossession, in order to demonstrate how soundings, and acoustemology, can hold relevance for a relational materialist politics. By this I mean a politics that is explicitly committed to engaging with the differential and unequal access to resources (such as work, housing, mobility, education, healthcare) and social relations that tend to be experienced and reproduced through processes of contemporary capital. Politics, as I am using it, is less orientated toward rigid systems that see capital as a ‘thing’ in the world, than toward the complex ways that such processes and conditions assemble and decompose; it is an understanding of capital as a way of relating and being affected. Soundings are useful to this orientation precisely for their ability to move along with such complexity, bringing together possibilities for affective and semiotic approaches. It is this specific combination – a capacity for attending to those highly contingent and contagious atmospheres of a place, and to infrastructural, discursive, and material systems – that make soundings interesting for geo-politics.