The Center for the Study of the Relationship Between Words and Stones

by Jeff Benjamin


An individual life develops philosophical themes; ideas that return again and again over the years. Over time, and quite remarkably, we actually become recognizable to ourselves, we start to see ourselves as whole, integral organic beings, larger and more enduring than the daily exigencies, the brittle constructs of events, titles, categories, applied to us. A writer develops a familiar voice, a sculptor a familiar touch, we perform these philosophical themes in our day to day-ness. In our work, we become ourselves. If we are lucky, we discover that the schismatic nature of social obligation has done nothing to alter the solidity of the day and night, and our own unique approaches to them. Heirarchical, vertical constructs ultimately become alien to us and have no bearing upon the fundamental unavoidable (horizontal) reality of living “on the surface of the habitable earth” (Ricouer 2004, 41).

One such recurring theme that I have contended with over the past twenty years, one which returns like an old friend, is the phenomenon of words. For the first twenty five years of my life, spoken words seemed to me like absurd little sing-song notes. I carefully used them to get by, to do the required performances, but the “real world” was the domain of sight, shape, color, form, texture, motion, scent, touch, taste, balance. I recall this time as a luxurious existence, dream-like. At some point in my late twenties, words mysteriously began to have meaning. Moreover, I learned that I could actually use them to express meaning to others. Words became so powerful to me that I would lose sleep over them; they sometimes became the source of torment and rumination. It was this kind of dynamic — the way words could hit me with brute force or heal me with soothing calm, the way I would worry about how I used them myself — that inspired a long journey.

After an escape from a teaching job in Manhattan and a couple more years doing construction work, I began to think more and more about the materiality of words, and while my initial formation of  ‘The Center for the Study of the Relationship Between Words and Stones’ was a kind of poetic gesture, I also recognized that there was a real and verifiable relationship between these things. I had to admit to myself that I was highly susceptible to words, and this sensitivity launched me on a pilgrimage with no fixed destination. For over a year, traversing the horizontal surface of the earth, driving across North America, I thought about this relationship and wrote, so the words followed the terrestrial journey.  In a series of pocket notebooks I began to write down my thoughts (the assumption behind this being that I actually valued them), and I also began to have a keen interest in the relationship between what I was thinking and where the thoughts occurred.  Looking back in those journals I can attach the words and thoughts to particular places: Winnipeg, Seattle, Wenatchee, Kamloops, Pittsburgh.


Belltown, Seattle. Early 90′s (now demolished).

One afternoon in New York City, I tried to document the relationship between place and thought by sticking surveyor flags in cracks on the sidewalk when a thought worthy of writing down would happen. This became the chapbook “This is Where.”  Another chapbook “Words in New York,” began with the premise that all of the world’s people said things during the day and then forgot everything they said at night, with the entire world in the process of constantly saying things and then forgetting: a direct response to some of the horrific things that I was hearing people say.  Words, especially spoken words, were troubling me, so I wrote about them, studied them.

I bought a printing press and learned letterpress printing so I could handle letters and words, space the letters carefully, and press them into paper. Years later when I began to think and write about sound as artifact at Michigan Tech, I came to realize that this was simply the continuation of a lifelong philosophical theme, one which was developed, over the days and nights, criss-crossing the earthly terrain with a suitcase full of art supplies. I can remember the day driving along fourth avenue in Seattle, when I spotted an embossing and rubber stamp store. I parked and walked inside, and asked them to make an embosser that read:


Hand embossed text

In the thinking life, each successive discovery or epiphany seems at first like an awakening, but over time one begins to wonder if this process is not actually a kind of falling into deeper and deeper levels of sleep. Are things being uncovered or covered over? Intellectual discourse emerges through a discussion and redefinition of symbolic forms, with an underlying acceptance and consensus regarding the meanings of these symbolic forms and building upon existing forms. This is how language and theory develops over time. But, as an academic discipline, I think archaeology approaches symbolic form differently. Archaeology, with its stress upon the sensory realm, questions and analyzes the very material existence of symbolic forms, including words. And here’s the challenge for archaeology: in order to study the senses, or study ‘through’ them, it helps to be sensitive. So, in many ways, archaeology is a discipline of sensitivity and archaeological work is a form of sensitivity training. This approach to the world and its magnificent diversity is endlessly rewarding, but it entails acting upon the subject of perception, awakening it.

  In colloquial use, the disparity of understood meanings of the words ‘responsive’ and ‘responsible’ is puzzling, since they seem to share a similar origin relating to sensory awareness. The burgeoning fields of sensory studies suggests that these two words are coming closer together in their meanings: could it be that intellectual responsibility is increasingly dependent upon sensory responsiveness?  For example, in order to study sound, you have to be willing to listen. In order to study the tangible you have to be willing to touch. In short, in order to gain knowledge, you have to do it: “We know only insofar as we can do”(Muntersbjorn 2003, 1143). We live in a temporal blip where every moment is accompanied by an urge to consult a digital device for verification, and full, rich moments of experience are reduced to conduits, or empty spaces, between the many islands in an archipelago of gadgetry. Professionalized acquiescence towards the replacement of distant source-code authority for immediate sensory experience is both irresponsible and unresponsive. The greatest insights within the many branches of sensory studies will come from those thinkers who did not succumb to the professional corporate imperatives of sensory forfeiture.

Although certainly unique in their means and objectives, I have often felt that the process of archaeological excavation bears a remarkable similarity to another sensory dependent discipline: abstract painting and drawing. One superficial similarity is the identical shapes of the palette knife used by painters and the archaeologist’s trowel (albeit different sizes, although some painters use very large knives). I have done more drawing myself, but the deeper affinity between these practices is the reticence displayed by practitioners of both in arriving at fixed conclusions regarding form and meaning. Abstraction is a very disciplined process, it is not loose or wild, it entails a constant movement away from representation, symbolism, repetition. It is a skeptical discipline, and it is not easy if approached seriously. In archaeological excavation, it is only with a deep sense of gravity that one can bring oneself to say: This is x. And in abstraction the loss is greater: to look at the drawing and say This is x is an admission of failure, so the excavation/drawing must continue until the work eludes all fixed answers. Master of abstraction, Willem deKooning famously described himself in the act of painting as being a “slipping glimpser:” always catching a glimpse of something, but never fully apprehending it. In their work, artists and archaeologists both contend with the constantly shifting balance of form and formlessness. This visual balancing act, the dance between form and abstraction, can easily be extended to the sonic realm, and specifically as it pertains to words.

In an evocative account of childhood, Sartre relates a story of the dual sense of euphoria and loss brought on by the fixation of meaning in hand-inked words:

Hardly did I begin to write than I laid down my pen to rejoice. The imposture was the same, but I have said that I regarded words as the quintessence of things. Nothing disturbed me more than to see my scrawls little by little change their will-o’-the-wisp gleam for the dull consistency of matter: it was the realization of the imaginary. Caught in the trap of naming, a lion, a captain of the Second Empire, or a Bedouin would be brought into the dining room; they remained captive there forever, embodied in signs. (Sartre 1964, 141)

Sartre’s sentiment is echoed in 1896 by a doctor investigating tinnitus and aural perceptions that have no discernible or external cause:

…(N)ames, once called into existence as our servants, are never long
content with servitude. Too often we find ourselves controlled by them,
and that which is only a symptom, when it has been named tends to be
looked on as a disease, sometimes so definite that the investigation of its cause is hindered. (Gowers 1896, 1429)

Aside from and surrounding form, there will always the source of form: the inchoate, the nebulous. Those who hastily equate thought with language are only considering one of thought’s many end products, such as chairs, cities or paper. In their best use, language and words provide thought with a kind of structure or framework – thought bones – but when this rigidity supersedes its function words become the calcification of thought: the brittle husks left over after the larvae have left to find nourishment.

The point where an abstract, formal combination of sounds becomes a word is meticulously studied by linguists, with a descriptive language akin to technical journals. Take, for instance, a linguistic description of a very particular vocal formation of “L” as spoken in New York City:

 A voiceless alveolar lateral fricative with the tongue position of the preceding allophone occurs in the initial clusters /pl/ and /kl/: play, apply, clear, acclaim. Often, unless the syllable is heavily stressed, only the first part of the consonant is unvoiced. After other voiceless consonants in the same syllable (flame, sleep), some slight initial unvoicing may also occur. (Hubbell 1950, 50)

This leads to the modest proposal that words and language — spoken and written — are a legitimate realm for archaeological investigation.  All human produced sounds and words, as things, endure through time as artifacts and can be studied as such (Benjamin 2014). Linguistics and musicologists have their own unique approaches to organized sound, but the archaeological approach is invaluable both in its engagement with things (Olsen, Shanks, Webmoor, Witmore 2012) and, conversely, and just as important, its willingness to embrace the formless, the abstract, thinglessness.

The interplay of figure/field is very helpful with this concept (once again, analogies from visual art assist). While visually surveying an excavation, the formal elements dance back and forth between figure and field, known and unknown, nameable and unnameable, sometimes emerging, sometimes receding, changing roles. Schaefer has also extended this analogy into his contemplation of environmental sound with “signal” as figure and “keynote” as field (Schaefer 1977, 10). I would suggest that archaeological engagement with sound constitutes an expansion of knowledge, an extension of these kinds of considerations, rather than a displacement of disciplines.

This is mentioned because I have already witnessed a resistance to the object-ness of sound (Cox 2011). There are some clear differences between tangible objects and objects of sound, such as the latter’s invisibility, but to set sound apart as particularly temporal is perhaps misleading. All objects, all things are temporal, but the “decay time” for a sound is simply much quicker than for a tangible solid object, although an old sound can indeed be reintroduced into contemporaneity by interactions with the tangible forms that produced it. Another commonly voiced objection — that sound is particularly amorphous or formless — is scientifically baseless. Sounds have demonstrable and definable form.

There is a constant osmotic transference of atoms and molecules between all things, yet we still employ the notion of their separateness as a useful way of discussing them. Trees, for instance, have very dynamic, kinetic complex interrelationships with the soil, the air, each other, and other forms of life. Yet we can still point to an individual tree without losing sight of this complexity (or mystery). The title of the short story by Carson McCullers, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” always struck me for this reason. These are vastly disparate forms, with very diverse properties, yet their grouping is still sensible simply because they are among the things of the world, embraced by the senses as separable entities. In this story an old man accosts a boy in a restaurant and tells him a long tale about falling in love, how falling in love with a human being is to start “at the wrong end of love” (McCullers 1987, 131), that love should begin with “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” (131)…. “I am a person who feels many things. All my life one thing after another has impressed me… one thing after another” (128).  Another objection to the object-hood of sound forms is that this signifies the loss of a dynamic quality particular to sound. Might I suggest that we turn the tables, to impart upon so-called static objects the kind of dynamic ontology generally ascribed to sound? A rock occurs. A tree happens. The event of a cloud.

Archaeology seems well poised to offer something very unique regarding sound and the sonic forms we call words, although there certainly is a robust resistance. An acceptance of word as sonic artifact, or sonifact, is counterintuitive because of the verbal foundations inscribed in the texts of monotheistic religious/intellectual thought. This verbal authority of edicts and mandates is deeply subsumed into the entire intellectual landscape of our world. Institutions, entire nations are built upon words, or should I clarify, an obedience to words. However, artists and scientists must acknowledge the fact that ‘in the beginning,’ there was simply the vast energy and matter of the universe. Words came much later. This skepticism regarding the immediate power of words is, of course, nothing new. We frequently say or hear the phrase “I’ve heard that before” with good reason.

Perhaps the privileging of language as an immediate motivational force originates in biological and neurological reality: for a dawning individual human consciousness, the word, as sonifact (distinct from its referent or meaning), may very well have been the very first thing, the first formal pattern, the first figure to emerge from the field of formlessness, and with it, its undeniable power. A recent study carried out by sound researchers in Finland suggests that the human fetus demonstrates recognition of a distinct spoken words while still in the womb (Partanen et al, 2013).

In my masters thesis and some forthcoming articles, I have elaborated on how sound as artifact can function archaeologically, and how this notion is supported by the work of other writers (Deetz 1967, Thompson 2002, Rath 2003, Witmore 2006) to name a few. To briefly recapitulate: a sonic artifact, or sonifact is an individual sound, a cultural or ecological sound-form; repeatable, reproducible, representable, something that endures through time, with negligible variability. A sonifact is produced through the material interactions of host-artifacts, the (usually) tangible, visible forms that produce sound.

Conceived archaeologically, the soundscape of any particular location is a rich sonic midden, with sonifacts of pre-history and history all in primary context, as well as new, novel sound forms. Occurring in association in space and time, all of these sonifacts constitute what could be considered a sonifactual assemblage, where sonifacts and host-artifacts relate contextually with each other and the wider environment. Thinking of sound in this way places sequentially organized sounds, like a song or a spoken sentence, in the same theoretical category as the sounds of a freeway overpass or crowded bookstore. They can each be considered a sonifactual assemblage, and studied in their many complex associative relationships.

If this all seems acceptable, then the next logical step is the creation of a descriptive language of sound, a colloquial way of discussing the many sonifacts all around us. Perhaps this will require another year long road trip. However, I am very grateful for that early time, the nascent days of the Center For the Study of the Relationship Between Words and Stones: the meandering, purposeless wandering (an archaeologist’s duty!) of gravel roads, highways and back alleys; the weeks spent in the philosophy section of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, the Alcan and the mountain ranges and glaciers of British Columbia and Alaska, and for the words that cut me loose.



Cox, Christoph. (2011). “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,” in Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 10(2): 145-161.

Domanska, Ewa. (2006). The Material Presence of the Past. History and Theory 45, 337–348.

Deetz, James. (1967). Invitation to Archaeology. Garden City, New York: The Natural History Press.

Gowers, W.R. (1896). “On the Subjective Sensations of Sound,” in British Medical Journal, November 14, 1896, 1429-1436.

Hubbell, Allan Forbes (1950). The Pronunciation of English in New York City. New York: King’s Crown Press, Columbia University.

Muntersbjorn, Madeline. (2003). “Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Science: Machina intellectus and Forma indita,” in Philosophy of Science, 70, (December 2003), 1137 – 1148.

McCullers, Carson. (1987).”A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” in Collected Stories of Carson McCullers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Olsen, B., M. Shanks, T. Webmoor and C. Witmore, (2012). Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Partanen, Eino, Teija Kujala, Risto Näätänen, Auli Liitola, Anke Sambeth, Minna Huotilainen, “Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 110, No. 37. September 10, 2013, 15145-15150.

Rath, Richard Cullen. (2003). How Early America Sounded. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1964) The Words. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Brazilier, Inc.

Schaefer,  R. M., (1977) The Tuning of the World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Thompson, Emily. (2002). The Soundscape of Modernity. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Witmore, Christopher L., (2006). Vision, Media, Noise and the Percolation of Time. Journal of Material Culture, 11(3),  267-292.

One thought on “The Center for the Study of the Relationship Between Words and Stones

  1. Hi Jeff,

    This makes me so sad that I did not get to go to TAG this year! Your ideas resonated with a recent trip to England. People often note the visual characteristics of places like White Horse Hill or Stonehenge, but I seldom read about their aural qualities.White Horse Hill is very quiet. You could hear trains and machinery for miles, yet voices right next to you seem muffled by the hills. It makes one wonder about the attraction to such a place and the quality of sound.

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