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2.0 Aural Perception

2.1 Perception

By perception I am thinking of James Gibson's (1979) idea of direct perception. Direct in a sense that hearing is not a computational activity of a mind within a body but an exploratory activity of an organism with its environment (Gibson 1979, see also Ingold 1993; 2000). Perception begins with the position of the perceiver at the centre of an ambiental array, which contains higher order invariant information. Information within the ambiental array presents affordances to the observer. Affordances are, as described by Ingold (1993, 64), 'properties of the real environment as directly perceived by an agent in the context of practical action'.

Gibson's approach is by no means a massive advance on the cognitive computational view of perception – where perceptions are the result of mental processes that mediate between the sensory data available to our sense organs and what is perceived – and was heartily welcomed within the community of theoretically aware practitioners of archaeological GIS (cf. Llobera 1996).

However, Gibson's approach by itself and its application in archaeology and archaeological GIS studies are not without problems. Webster (1999), in his reply to Llobera (1996), demonstrated that affordances can only be contextual and relationally specific to individuals and not generic. On a more general level, it was argued from different positions that Gibson's ideas are still firmly rooted in the Cartesian tradition (Ingold 2000, 250; Thomas 2001). This poses inherent dangers to any approach which uses Gibson's ideas to tackle past landscapes in a 'more humanistic way'.

2.2 Seeing and hearing

Sound can be described as a disturbance of the atmosphere that beings can hear. Such disturbances are produced by practically everything that moves, especially if it moves quickly or in a rapid and repetitive manner. Hearing, as it will be used throughout this article, is the engagement of an organism with its environment, where the organism picks up sounds from the disturbances in the air.

There are profound differences between distinct modes of perception, especially between hearing and seeing. To be seen, an object needs to do nothing. Visual perception depends solely on the reflection of light from the outer surface of an object and as such implies both the opacity and inertia of what is seen and the externality of the perceiver (Ingold 2000, 210). Its information is passively encoded into ambiental optical array.

To be heard, on the other hand, an object must actively emit sound or, through movement, cause sound to be emitted by other objects with which it interacts (Ingold 1993, 161-62). It actively shapes what J. Gibson terms the ambient acoustical array (Gibson 1979).

Sound does not pre-exist. It exists only when being performed. Therefore, what we hear is always an activity. Sound is subject to rapid fading: spreading outwards from its point of emission, and dissipating as it goes, it is presented only momentarily to our senses (Ingold 1993, 161-62). As such, sound creates both time (when it is performed) and space (where it fades).

A useful concept for understanding the relationship between listener, sounds and landscape is the concept of soundscape, introduced by the Canadian composer and musicologist R. Murray Schafer (1977).

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Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004