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Sound Space and the City

Peterson, Marina. 2010. Sound, Space, and the City. Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia: University of Pennsylvannia Press.

Reviewed by Catherine Scheelar, University of Alberta.

In Sound, Space, and the City, anthropologist Marina Peterson explores the process of center-making in Los Angeles through multicultural performance in public space. Positing her work as an ‘anthropology of the center’, of the city rather than in the city, she traces how meaning is made in and around public performances. Based on ethnographic research from 2001 to 2003, her study observes embodied musical practices that constitute the imagining and making of a multicultural city. A free concert series, Grand Performances is situated in the contexts of historical and contemporary urban planning, artistic programming, and the city as lived and imagined.

Acknowledging that ideas of the social sciences seep into everyday life, she challenges the situatedness of disciplinary knowledge and the locations in which anthropological theory has been developed and applied. Grand Performances came into being as a multicultural arts and music project including ethnicity (but excluding class and political affiliations) for the construction of a general, neutral ‘public’, an audience as both a representation and a synecdoche of the city. She draws links between international performance and downtown development, exploring the politics of multiculturalism as part of wider social and political frameworks enacted on municipal, state, and national levels. In recounting her personal experiences of working in the organization and performing onstage with the DaKAH hip hop orchestra, she uses personal narratives and sensual descriptions of experiencing California Plaza.

The concerts are representations of a city imagined and made in practice, as Los Angeles has been perceived as a city lacking real civic life and a central space where people can come together as a public. The history of the space highlights the dynamics of gentrification; the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project removed unruly bodies, replacing particular people with a general public, both activating and cleansing the urban space. California Plaza now exists as private property on public land, the area’s former blight covered with modern sculptures. With ethnicized neighbourhoods surrounding it, the purported neutrality of downtown is brought into being through practice which supports diversity as a normative feature of city. As a civic institution, Grand Performances creates audience members as civic subjects as spaces of belonging are created through inclusion and exclusion. Peterson cites Lefebvre in discussing the urban public as both sonic and spatial processes of the city, as social and musical rhythms are heard and felt in the body.

Are the arts integral to urban growth in the twentieth century? Pederson places Grand Performances in the context of historical American debates about art as an educational medium for the public good and worthy of state support. In analyzing the practice of centre-making through the arts, she acknowledges the imagined public of the city, the interests of the corporate plaza, and the reality of government grant guidelines. Defining the free concerts as nonprofits for the education of the public good shapes meanings of art through intersections of programming, funding, and marketing. Performances are always planned, wavering between a public openness and fear of the public. Bourdieu’s notion of habitus is invoked to discuss the disciplining of bodies, construction of consensus, and exclusion of class necessary for a multicultural audience watching a performance of ethnicity. Political performances are also generally excluded for divisive potentialities in the civic space of consensus.

The global city is sounded through media with translocal media spaces acting as motivators of activities, allowing ethnic media to market international programming. The city is in motion, as people and sounds circulate within and between neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood names act as code for social groups in an ethnicized geography, and the success or failure of performances is largely based on the range of ethnic diversity in the audience.

In looking at the tenents of democracy such as representation, recognition, and participation, Peterson explores the relationship between performance and politics, as the neoliberal trope of diversity shows openness to difference, helping to alleviate violence and tensions. While music is a medium for belonging, signifying race, politics, age, etc., cosmopolitanism allows for shifting affiliations in identity-in-process. Modernist notions of neutrality allow for multiple interpretations and claims to higher abstractions. Peterson devotes much space to hip hop orchestra DaKAH, which she purports exists as a musical and social mixture, embodying Los Angeles through the diversity of its members. She asserts that the musical group fosters intergenerational understanding through combining hip hop and orchestra. Civic performance aims to foster spatial and social proximity through music. Genre is negotiatied over musical and social boundaries, with identification understood as mobile processes of becoming.

In a movement from the self to the collective, an audience is constituted through an embodied experience of listening and dancing together, fulfilling urban ideals of diversity through affective, participatiory, and sensory channels. Through sound engineering, sonic and spatial intimacy and proximity are felt in the body. Durkheim’s theory of ritual designates the body as the subjective site where experience generates a collective. Peterson asserts that utopic versions of society are drawn from and necessary for the social; the ideal society is not outside of society but rather already a part of it. Foucault is mentioned in the discussion of the individual body as the locus of aspirations, through which beliefs must be continually performed in order to sustain social beliefs. At Grand Performances, a dancing audience is a sign of approval, as individuals engage in the public performance of a private, affective response.

In concise and accessible language, Peterson successfully highlights parallels between actual multicultural performances and the ideal global city. While she briefly mentions that Grand Performance’s events are outside of everyday life and time, an ideal, ephemeral state counter to the norm, she makes no mention of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner’s anthropological theories of liminality. Overall though, this work is beneficial to both students and scholars interested in social relations and diversity, public space, urban revitalization, civic life, privatization, suburbanization, and economic and cultural globalization.

- Catherine Scheelar

One Comment

  1. Peter Jones wrote:

    Space and Culture is a fascinating resource. I champion Hodges’ model a conceptual framework – a conceptual space which may be of interest to readers here?. I blog about the model, nursing, global health, informatics … on “Welcome to the QUAD”:

    The model includes a SOCIOLOGY care (knowledge) domain with a related resource page:

    – where I already have a link here.

    – and SCIENCES:

    I am currently comnpleting a paper on global, local and glocal.

    Best wishes
    Peter Jones
    h2cm: help2Cmore – help-2-listen – help-2-care Link outside of

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 15:07 | Permalink