Feld's Amplification

In yesterday's class, Professor Steven Feld presented his works, from the bird songs of New Guinea to the bells of Europe to the jazz of Ghana. After a long and fruitful conversation, Feld described an important principle/technique of his work which he described as “amplification”. He suggested that on many registers (anthropological, epistemological, political, aesthetic) we can think about intervening in sites by trying to amplify the sounds, discourses, practices, disputes occuring in those sites. In his early work, for example, he described how recording the sounds of 24 hours in the rainforest onto a one hour long disc and distributing it through the Grateful Dead's listener network could change the political conditions in New Guinea (allowing the rainforest communities to hire high-priced lawyers). He contrasted this with a direct engagement in the political situation, one which would employ his own words, truth-claims, or judgments to try to achieve a particular end.

Amplification is usefully opposed to representation, which also brings together epistemology, politics and aesthetics, but in a different form. If after the Writing Culture moment some wings of anthropology became obsessive about the “politics of representation”, Feld here provides a way out. I think one key component of the distinction is that whereas representation involves a practice of substitution (this stands for that) and thus is a question about fidelity or infidelity to an original, amplification is a strengthening of the original signal. Moreover, in practice, as anyone who has used a guitar amplifier knows, this strengthening amplifies both the intended signal and noise (including noise produced by the amplification device). The way Feld described his compositional practice made the importance of noise in his work clear. For example, when making the piece for the Hiroshima Peace Museum, while witnessing the ringing of the bell there, he suddenly heard, in the silence preceding the bell's gong, the racket of the cicadas. Or again, in his piece that will be opening soon in San Francisco, he recorded the sounds from five to seven in the morning in Accra, and described this as a way of displacing oneself from the polemic debates about religion, modernity, tolerance, blasphemy, etc. (which again, could be said to revolve around the politics of representation). If amplification is not only a movement of a signal from one place to another, or a strengthening of a pure signal, but necessarily adds noise and distortion (and, when the amplified signal is itself picked up by the amplification device, feedback) then a practice of amplification is a necessarily creative practice.

However, I felt there were still some things about Feld's work that could not be captured by the concept of amplification, and I also had some reservations about the practice. Feld's participation in many of his worlds simply cannot be reduced to amplification. The collaborative relationships he developed with musicians and others in Accra put him in many positions--friend, band member, colleague, funder. Many of these involved participant engagements--such as sharing his own history of listening with his friends there, or playing in the band as it toured West Africa--and these engagements must do something more than amplify the conversation going on. They must also be changing the conversation there, as well as here. Part of this could be captured by the idea of feedback: that the amplified signal returns to its origin in a new (distorted, noisy) form, and then influences the original phenomenon (or conversation). But it seems to me that Feld is also bringing an instrument of his own to play there (literally and metaphorically)--and so what is being amplified already had himself in it from the beginning. If we are thinking about participant-observation in anthropology, amplification seems to provide some useful concept tools--but doesn't fully account for the kinds of participation many of us have in our field sites today.