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Review

Twentieth-Century Music 14/3, 481–486 © Cambridge University Press, 2018


doi: 10.1017/S1478572217000378

Seth Kim-Cohen, Against Ambience and Other Essays (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016),
ISBN 978-1-50131-031-7 (hb), 978-1-50131-032-4 (pb).

Humanities scholarship has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the study of ambient music,
sound, art, and media over the last five years. In musicology, Joanna Demers, Anahid
Kassabian, and Marc Weidenbaum have submitted studies of musical ambience and ambient
music. Kassabian’s monograph also overlaps with ambient media and architecture studies by
Malcolm McCullough, John Durham Peters, and Paul Roquet, while Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
and Thomas J. Rickert have contributed to the study of ambience in philosophy, rhetoric,
and literary studies.1 Seth Kim-Cohen’s Against Ambience and Other Essays partakes in this
resurgence, cutting across these groupings while sharing with several texts an investment
in the transdisciplinary field of sound studies. The book is a collection of polemical essays
concerning the aesthetics and politics of sound art. While Kim-Cohen’s primary focus on
the gallery arts sets Against Ambience apart from most of the aforementioned scholarship,
the sound artist and theorist shares a philosophical orientation with Demers and Rickert,
while also often focusing on music. Like the books by Demers, Weidenbaum, and Roquet,
Against Ambience’s feature essay expansively conceptualizes ambience as an aesthetic term
that involves, but goes beyond, the genre of ambient music as defined by Brian Eno.
In extrapolating from Eno’s legacy, Kim-Cohen thinks past ambient art’s atmospheric,
psychological, and somatic functionality to inquire into the political consequences of
producing and presenting art as ‘ambience’.
Kim-Cohen wrote Against Ambience’s feature essay in response to a series of gallery
exhibitions in early 2013 that dealt with ambience as a modality of aesthetic reception. Due
to its timely nature as art criticism, Kim-Cohen published the essay as a standalone ebook in
late 2013. The collection augments this long-form essay (approximately eighty pages in this

1 Joanna Demers, Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books,
2015); Anahid Kassabian, Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity (Berkeley, CA: University
of California Press, 2013); Marc Weidenbaum, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, 33⅓ Series (New York: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2014); Malcolm McCullough, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2013); John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2015); Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2016); Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature,
trans. Erik Butler (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Thomas J. Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements
of Rhetorical Being (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

481
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482 Review

edition) with various loosely linked short essays initially published or delivered elsewhere. Part
Two includes critical essays that touch on Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion (2009), John Cage’s
Lecture on Nothing, Robert Morris’s Hearing, and the television show Glee. Part Three offers a
series of speculations on how rock’n’roll relates to sound art, conceptualism, and philosophy.
These essays vary considerably in length and completeness, reading as a somewhat jumbled
afterthought in comparison to the feature essay’s carefully calculated thrust-and-parry. Only
the Aitken critique achieves similar argumentative focus as the feature essay; the rest, though
loaded with tantalizing theorizations, come off as tangential and fragmentary. The collection
ends with an interview of Kim-Cohen that usefully distills the arguments in Against Ambience
and places them in the context of his own art practice.
As with Kim-Cohen’s earlier art theoretical writings, Against Ambience focuses primarily,
in Kim-Cohen’s own words, on the ‘pragmatic ethics of the use of sound in artistic contexts’
(61). Although Kim-Cohen’s critique mainly concerns the production and dissemination
of sound art, he exercises his critique trans-categorically across music recordings, sound
installations, concert works, and visual art such as the light installations of James Turrell and
Susan Goldman’s paint-by-numbers pieces. The essay extends and sharpens the critique of his
first monograph, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, which railed against
the notion of ‘sound-in-itself’ as an untenable metaphysics guiding sound art production, and
which prescribed conceptualism as a necessary corrective.2 Similarly to In the Blink of an Ear,
Against Ambience criticizes art and exhibitions evidently fixated on exploring sound and light
‘themselves’ as though these phenomena were extricable from their social, cultural, historical,
and material contexts. These presentations falter, argues Kim-Cohen, in their construal of
sound and light as ‘ambient phenomena’ whose value lies in their ‘evanescence, ineffability,
and immersiveness’ (4).
The ‘ambience’ of Kim-Cohen’s Against Ambience hence does not refer directly to a genre of
art, nor to a condition of its reception, but rather describes a mode of framing artistic materials
as ahistorical, asocial, and a-signifying perceptual media. Presented and taken as ambience,
artistic sound (or light) masquerades as a condition of spatiotemporal perception that lacks
content or human investment – it ‘simply is’ (21). This simply is, of course, not true; and
Kim-Cohen refuses to entertain the lie. With Derridean doggedness, Kim-Cohen ruthlessly
assails art pieces and practices that purport to proffer presence ‘without precedent, without
cause’ (21). The veneration of presence-as-‘ambience’ is not only reductive, the author argues;
it also reproduces a host of simplistic and politically stunting Western stereotypes of sound
and audition that render art ‘mute’, leaving audiences ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ to sociopolitical
power (4, 50). Kim-Cohen refers here to the common-sense binarisms Jonathan Sterne has
termed the ‘audiovisual litany’: while hearing is spherical, vision is directional; while hearing
is immersive, vision is perspectival; whereas the ear is receptive, the eye is active; and so

2 Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (New York and London: Continuum, 2009),
xxii.

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Review 483

on.3 Cleaving to these simplifications, Sterne argued, clouds our ability to understand the
multifarious ways sound acts as a relational phenomenon. And the problem with ambience,
as Kim-Cohen attests, is that it ‘checks every box’ on the audio side of Sterne’s audiovisual
litany ‘without complication or critique’ (6–7).
As an entreaty to sound artists and gallerists to think discursively about the artistic
production of ambience, Kim-Cohen’s Against Ambience is a necessary and timely
intervention. It should be read by anyone with a serious investment in the creation or
presentation of ‘sound art’ or ‘environmental’ art installations. As aesthetic theory, the essay is
at once discursively productive, cognitively stimulating, well organized, linguistically playful
without indulgence, and frequently razor-sharp in its dissection of concepts. Highlights
include Kim-Cohen’s careful examinations of the terms ‘conceptualism’ and ‘site-specificity’
as theorized by Rosalind Krauss and Miwon Kwon, respectively. The author’s Heideggerian
characterization of sound art’s hackneyed sine-wave synthesis as yearning for sein-without-
mit – an unconvincing denial of sound’s ‘being-with’ humanity – also rings in resonance with
his overarching argument, clear and true.
Producers and scholars of ambient music should also find Against Ambience provocative,
and their work would almost certainly benefit from considering Kim-Cohen’s ethical petition.
Though Kim-Cohen directs his critique mainly towards the gallery arts – singling out James
Turrell’s Aten Reign (2013) and Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011) as exemplifying
the trend towards uncomplicated ambience – he also points to Brian Eno’s Discreet Music
(1975) as an ambient work that problematically seeks to deliver listeners into ‘pure’ sensation
while abnegating ‘participation in the social, communicative, and critical realms’ (29). Kim-
Cohen protests that Eno’s devaluation of ‘foreground’ listening lacks political teeth, since it
fails to redirect listener attention from the audible material towards its own technological,
musical, social, or historical conditions. What’s more, the piece allows Eno to disavow his
authority as an artistic producer, as the sound feigns ex nihilo generation from the tape
delay system depicted in the liner notes. Kim-Cohen, in sympathy with Timothy Morton’s
ecological critique of aesthetic ambience’s back-to-Gaia romanticism, contrasts Eno’s seeming
withdrawal into sheer ambience with the dub of King Tubby and jazz-funk of Miles Davis’s On
the Corner.4 Though these latter musics take on an atmospheric quality, they never simulate an
integrated wholeness into which audiences can sink, instead producing fragmentary moods
and surface distortions that ‘unsettle’ and ‘disrupt’ the listening environment (52–3). These
warps and contortions, says Kim-Cohen, crucially undercut the illusion of otherworldly
transcendence that Eno’s Discreet Music apparently seeks to foster.
Kim-Cohen’s indictment of Discreet Music, although appropriately triggered by the album’s
veneer of authorial neutrality and social detachment, nonetheless involves some frustrating
limitations and argumentative leaps. As with much ambient music scholarship to date,

3 Jonathan Sterne, ‘Sonic Imaginations’, in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012),
9.
4 Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2007).

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484 Review

Kim-Cohen stays vague about the listening conditions under which Discreet Music would
normally be heard, treating the piece as externally administered while disregarding the
listener’s likely ability to select and program the album, read Eno’s essay, observe his tape
delay system, and investigate the concept of ambient music on their own. Most listeners’
experience of the album would hence not be as ‘passive’ as Kim-Cohen represents it; even
given that the music promotes asocial passivity, this asocial passivity would be intended
and elected before most listening situations. Acknowledging ambient music’s reality as a
personal technology of social withdrawal – and, more broadly, the role of aesthetic ambience
within personal regimes of self-care – could conceivably strengthen, rather than dismantle,
Kim-Cohen’s argument.
Moreover, despite the author’s call to think relationally, Against Ambience at times extracts
artworks from their social and historical contexts, placing them on an even footing and
solely using aesthetic theory to dissect their failings. Kim-Cohen’s critique of Discreet Music
would only gain nuance and force by considering the sociohistorically localized politics of
ambient music discourse, affect, and style; for instance, by mentioning how when Eno’s 1970s
critics similarly found ambient music disconcertingly apolitical, Eno defended his concept as
deflating the narcissistic self-importance of vociferously ‘political’ rock; or by observing the
roles of irony (postmodern cynicism perhaps? or bohemian mischievousness?) and parody in
the music’s hypermodern take on light music, Muzak-lite functionalism, and the mood music
LP; or by regarding the lifestyle and identity politics implicated in ambient music’s affective
threading through and around the adjacent sensibilities of avant-garde machismo, ivory tower
elitism, psychedelic hipness, and New Age techno-utopianism. (The essay’s frequent focus on
Turrell and Irwin would similarly benefit from at least a cursory engagement with the cultural
history of California minimalism and the Light & Space movement.) In short, Kim-Cohen
neglects to consider how ambient art’s simulations of otherworldly transcendence might be
wholly worldly in their conception and execution.
As a result, although Kim-Cohen’s deep concern with the politics of ambient detachment
remains as vital now as it was in 1975, the essay falls back on an equally dated notion of
what constitutes political engagement. The author holds sound art to the singular demand
of ‘resistance to the prevalent (and often unquestioned) social and political uses of things’
(10). ‘While you’re in the soft space of light, the NSA and Facebook are still collecting your
data’, Kim-Cohen reminds the reader in a summary formulation. ‘The money in your bank
account is still being used to fund who-knows-what without your knowledge or consent. The
government you elected is still imprisoning and targeting people with whom you have no beef’
(11). Kim-Cohen expects art to be ‘hyper-aware, vigilant, active, engaged, and informed’ of
such imbalances and abuses of power (7–8); sound art must display ‘self-awareness . . . with
regard to its own status and mechanics in the various structures within which it operates’ (20);
it ought to ‘acknowledge its own relation to . . . politics, economics, institutionality, race,
gender, climate, violence, and so on’ (44); and it should stoke ‘skepticism’ rather than sonic
fetishism (23). Without productive reflection upon its own social-institutional embedding,
Kim-Cohen forwards, art threatens to fall into ‘a state of nebulous, naı̈ve, navel-gazing’ (10).
But in so challenging sound artists and gallerists to question their precepts about sound’s

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Review 485

autonomy from the social, Kim-Cohen ends up reciting another litany that decisively regards
art as either suspicious or unconcerned, disruptive or permissive, resistant or passive, incisive
or uncritical. Such binarisms reproduce a set of assumptions about the value of art that
Rita Felski has analysed, after Paul Ricoeur, as a product of academic critique’s hermeneutics
of suspicion: an ‘antinormative normativity’ that fetishizes vigilance, disdains ease, and
enforces ‘skepticism as dogma’.5 Such an orientation might be observed, for instance, in Kim-
Cohen’s praise of King Tubby and Miles Davis for few clearly stated reasons other than that
listeners are ‘never allowed to get comfortable’ (49). By equating comfort with political failure,
and discomfort with sonic self-awareness, Kim-Cohen misses an opportunity to engage the
insights of feminist musicologists and ‘poptimist’ music critics that affirm the pleasures
of escapist and ‘easy’ art as potentially hard-won and productive for socially embattled
subjects. Elizabeth Le Guin acknowledges as much in her reading of ambient music as a
feminist pleasure, as does Jason King in his praise of ambient soul’s productions of collective
intimacy.6 These scholars avoid equating ambience with transcendence without presuming,
to paraphrase Felski, that ambient art’s sensuality and sociality are opposed rather than
interconnected.7
In so dismissing ambient art’s social agency, Kim-Cohen’s critique begs the question by
assuming that artistic ambience is, in fact, apolitical, asocial, aesthetically pure, and purely
functionalist. His use of the term ‘ambience’ to stand in for such uses of sound and light
hence takes at face value one of ambient art’s most pervasive and pernicious self-mythologies.
As Kim-Cohen rightly protests, ambient music and sound art’s producers and purveyors too
often bracket out the way sociality informs their art’s production and reception. But the
production and dissemination of environments for introspection can itself be understood as
a form of social participation, and one that potentially functions as a critical or melancholy
response to the ‘24/7’ surveillance and solicitation of personal involvement in information
networking and commodity consumption.8 Rather than taking for granted ambient art’s ‘in-
itselfness’, as Kim-Cohen does, it might instead be more productive to supplement this art by
uncovering what material, institutional, and ideological structures uphold this mythology.
Only after such an investigation would it suffice to say decisively whether and how ambient
art should provide retreats from a world in which it cannot help but be embedded.
This is not to say Kim-Cohen is wrong to be ‘against ambience’, at least as he construes
‘ambience’ in this essay. Far from it. As ambient media scholar Paul Roquet describes in his
more recent book, ambient music and media developed as part of the rapid commodification
of self-care attending economic neo-liberalization during the 1970s and 1980s. Ambient
media’s cool impersonality and ‘ambivalent calm’, Roquet explains, permit even social
sceptics the confidence of self-determination while yet promoting personal psychological

5 Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 9.
6 Elisabeth Le Guin, ‘Uneasy Listening’, Repercussions 3/1 (1994), 5–19; Jason King, ‘The Sound of Velvet Melting: The
Power of “Vibe” in the Music of Roberta Flack’, in Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, ed. Eric Weisbard
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 172–99.
7 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 16.
8 Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013; repr. New York: Verso, 2014).

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486 Review

and somatic attunement to workaday isolation and uncertainty.9 Kim-Cohen’s screed against
ambience ultimately protests a way of ‘doing art’ that calmly sustains this illusion of personal
control in taking on the appearance of timeless presence disconnected from biopolitics,
‘as if it were there all along’. Though it remains debatable whether such artistic gestures
are tantamount to precluding social and political awareness, Kim-Cohen’s essay serves as a
necessary reminder that ambient art often easily and unwittingly accommodates audiences
to conditions ultimately hostile to human flourishing. For these reasons, the art world could
use more ethical appeals such as Kim-Cohen’s, and his clarion call in Against Ambience justly
deserves amplification.
VICTOR SZABO
vszabo@hsc.edu

9 Roquet, Ambient Media, 9–14.

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