The possibility that sounds might be objects, entities, or things is an open question. However, many theories of sound close the question down via reductive assertions. Some argue that sounds cannot be things because things are autonomous entities whereas sounds are relative. Others argue that sounds cannot be things because things are durable bodies whereas sounds are temporal phenomena. The following essay begins by reviewing and critiquing these arguments as they appear in musicology, sound studies, and philosophy. Arguments against sound’s autonomy are generally motivated by anthropocentric ideologies, which by presuming humans’ ontological privilege reduce sounds to human experiences, practices, and conditions. Meanwhile, arguments against sound’s durability are troubled by the Sorites paradox. The trouble with these arguments is that they dissimulate sound’s absolute otherness and lasting impact; moreover, in the end they can neither disprove nor affirm sound’s object-potential. In an attempt to rehabilitate the question of sound’s thingness, the second half of my discussion proposes an object-oriented ontology for sound. Developed by Graham Harman, object-oriented ontology (OOO) offers an open-ended conception of thingness as a continuous metabolism of temporal relationality and durable autonomy. In OOO, things are paradoxical: every entity consists of a necessary, hidden essence and contingent presence, separated by an irreconcilable ontological rift. Consequently, things are irreducible to their relations even as they are their relations. As things in the object-oriented sense, sounds would retain their potent and absolute otherness while losing none of the experiential relativity that’s crucial to aesthetic theories. Further, the withdrawn ambiguity of entities in OOO ensures that ontology remains an open question. In fact, the difficulty involved in either committing or objecting to sound’s thingness demonstrates that sound calls the ontology of objects into question. Sounds make questions out of thingness and things.
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