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Recording a soundscape and in my feelings—on sensory methods and being present

I recorded this audio on a Tuesday mid-evening in May 2019, while sitting at home and working on the patio outside the house where I’m staying in the neighborhood “la 11” in Arica. I recorded it a bit quiet so it’s best to listen with headphones, if you do.

I set the recorder down and continued to work and reflect, to browse through a thought rabbit hole in my mind provoked by a series of articles in a 2012 special edition of Feminist Review on Avtar Brah’s “the scent of memory” (1999), saving PDFs to my laptop, reading through the introduction by Irene Gedalof and Nirmal Puwar and the piece by Stuart Hall (added some of these to my fieldwork and methods reading list!), and jotting down notes, some more academic and others more in my feelings. Those feelings being what I’m about to share below. Some of the academic did creep and get edited in later though. They were good feelings how I felt them. I had other work I should have been doing but I decided to stay, to stay with these good and very reflective feelings while I had them.

Sitting here listening, headphones plugged into the recorder, helps me feel “in it.” Feel here. Present. Grounded and embodied in this moment and place. Embodied, especially as someone whose anxiety can take a form of disassociating—feeling disconnected from my physical body, as if watching my life happen to me from elsewhere. And I realized the other day that I no longer noticed the neighborhood dogs conversating at night, maybe I’m getting more accustomed or maybe my mind is drifting, maybe both; I’m pretty sure the dogs are are still barking though.

This practice makes me think of how sensory ethnography may take form as a sort of meditational practice, reflective/reflexive. How it may create a memory, a personal memory really, to be in this space, to sit here, to get to know here, feel here, question what “here” is for me now, what my “real” home back “there” is for me now, think toward futures of remembering here, futures of trying to remember here from there, if there will be the same, and how my here is always co-constituted by my there.

What curious luck and coincidence I ended up in such a place full of rare birds whose chirping meshes together in a soundscape of birdsong, barking, music, and cars moving, among other vibrations. The sounds of a city are here, but not like the there of New York City where I was living before. Here are smaller city desert sounds. I have never really lived in a smaller city before, never the desert either.

I am thinking about sensory ethnography as an intentional presence and attention to the sensory—and especially sound, because capturing sound involves some stillness, some additional attention and self-consciousness to each movement that vibrates. It is training me to be much more attentive to each of my motions and senses. And as I sit here I smell bread lightly burning, the evening coming close to 7pm and the neighboring folks are starting to eat some once probably.

In this audio clip are sounds of my typing and clicking on my laptop, the computer responding, my pencil on paper writing, my sighs, my cell phone buzzing, me bumping the recorder; sounds of birds singing and fluttering, dogs barking, distant voices and reggaeton music (words un-renderable) and power tools buzzing on houses in construction, the patio tent rustling in the wind, cars rumbling, and a fly zipping by. The recorder sat on the same small table where I was working, actually on top of the other side of the open-faced notebook where I was jotting down some notes. The recorder was here with me.

In a sense, this audio is a representation of my life here doing “research.” As Michelle Yom discusses in her reflective piece on group ASMR, sounds touch us in a sense; they get intimate. I document and share this intimacy, here, out of possible shared curiosity really. The sound recording itself I made more for me than you, anonymous reader. I am making mental notes to make more of these in other places, more representations of intimacies of other homes, other heres, for me again too. And maybe in the near future I will make a more curated, song-length sound artifact, that might be more for you.

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