You Might Not Notice It. Sound Ethnography of a Blind Person Circulating in the City of Buenos Aires1

Receipt: February 8, 2021

Acceptance: June 30, 2021

Abstract

This article explores the role of sound and listening in the everyday experience of transiting the urban space from blindness. For this, an ethnography is presented in which sound registrations, images and written anthropological interpretations, produced during a walk with a blind person, are mixed. Thus, the relationship between urban experience, the materiality of the city, and the movements carried out from blind sensoriality are addressed, proposing the possibility that urban studies incorporate an alternative ethnographic sensibility to all that is visual. The basis of this paper is a brief contextualization of the investigation, it continues with a conceptualization on the methodology of the sound ethnography, and then opens the doors to analysis of the blind sensorialities in urban movement and the relationship between the State, city and blindness in the production of an accessible city.

Keywords: , , , , ,

you might not notice it. sound ethnography of a blind person circulating in the city of buenos aires.

Abstract: This article explores the role of sound and listening in the everyday experience of transiting the urban space from blindness. For this, an ethnography is presented in which sound recordings, images and written anthropological interpretations, produced during a walk with a blind person, are mixed. Thus, the relationship between urban experience, the materiality of the city, and the movements carried out from blind sensoriality are addressed, proposing the possibility that urban studies incorporate an alternative ethnographic sensibility to all that is visual. The basis of this paper is a brief contextualization of the investigation, it continues with a conceptualization on the methodology of the sound ethnography, and then opens the doors to analysis of the blind sensorialities in urban movement and the relationship between the State, city and blindness in the production of an accessible city.

Keywords: sound ethnography, blindness, sensoriality, listening, city of Buenos Aires, urban studies.

Introduction

What I present here is a sonorous ethnography that I conducted based on fieldwork with blind people in their daily transits through the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This research was part of my doctoral thesis (Petit, 2020a), in which I explored the social and historical production of sonority and listening, positioned from an anthropological perspective -or rather, a point of listening- through which I approached the socially situated listening of subjects and social groups in Buenos Aires.

The idea is that those who are now reading these words will not only be readers, but will also become listeners and listeners. listeners. This work is articulated around three audios that are derived from a main sound recording, which consists of an interview with Santiago, president of the Asociación Pro Ayuda a No Videntes (Association for the Help of the Blind) (Asociación Pro Ayuda a No Videntes).apanovi), while we were walking in the vicinity of the institution. This interview -one among several- is the basis for the interpretations that I also present here. So, before reading the interpretations expressed in anthropological writing (with the visual entity that the suffix -graphy of ethnography takes on), the kick-off is the audio that precedes each part. I want you to begin by listening to them, because they involve several aspects of anthropological fieldwork centered on sound, sonority and listening in the city. The bodies, the movement, the urban rhythms, the permanent beating of the cane against the ground, the materiality of the city. Noises, silences, acoustic changes. And in the midst of all this, the questions of an anthropologist and the story of a blind man with much to say and teach about his listening.

When I started writing my first research projects in 2015, I had already decided to include the question of what it is like to inhabit and transit the city from different sensorialities. Regarding blindness, the question consisted specifically in what characteristics urban listening acquires when one does not have the possibility of seeing and, likewise, what relationships arise with sound as an acoustic substance, that is, with the ubiquitous, ephemeral and evanescent existential condition of sound. This aspect of the research was decanted from two questions located at different levels. On the one hand, at an epistemological level, there was the issue of "visualism" (Fabian, 1983: 106-7) or "ocularcentrism" (Ingold, 2000: 155) that predominates in the Western tradition of knowledge production. I was thus interested in continuing with the deconstruction that has been at the basis of the anthropology of the senses (Stoller, 1992; Classen, 1997; Le Breton, 2009) and to pose the anthropological problem without succumbing to this hegemony of the seen and the visible.

On the other hand, on a rather ethnographic level, I found time and again that my question about sound -about what is heard in everyday life- permanently clashed with the category of habitus. Thus, in fieldwork with street musicians and street musicians (Petit and Potenza, 2019), or with banderilleros and banderilleras at railroad crossings (Petit, 2020b), it involved an intellectual challenge on my part - and some persistence - to pose the right questions to construct a sound map of urban experience. My interest in the ways in which blind people hear the city as they pass through it came, then, because -within my assumptions- I was not going to run into that habituation. At least not in the "somatic modes of attention" (Csordas, 1993) that are brought into play when there is no physiological possibility of seeing.

I got in touch with apanovi in September 2018, while conducting a sound and ethnographic survey of certain corners of the city of Buenos Aires. In this case I was at the intersection of San Juan and Boedo Avenues (Image 1 and Sound recording 1), in the neighborhood of Boedo, and a police officer pointed out that a peculiarity of her work is that under the 25 de Mayo highway -two blocks away from where we were- there is a "little school for the blind". For that reason, many blind people recognize it, because she usually has her radiocommunicator at a very high volume, to listen to it over the daily acoustic saturation -the noise- traffic and people.

The corner of San Juan and Boedo Avenues is also called Homero Manzi, due to the presence of a bar of tango tradition built in 1927. The image shows the intersection of the avenues and the Boedo station of Line E of the subway system. 200 meters away, along the same route, you will find apanovi. Source: Photograph taken by the author on September 18, 2018.
Sound recording 1. The previous image is complemented by this sound recording produced simultaneously by the author, which shows the acoustic saturation that characterizes the city's avenue crossings. 

I immediately went there and met Ruben, the secretary of apanoviwho clarified that the category "escuelita" is a common misconception among the neighbors of the neighborhood. Unlike other institutions that offer accompaniment in "Orientation and Mobility" practices -such as those recorded by Ahumada (2017) in the province of Salta and by Dagnino in Buenos Aires in his ethnographic work (2019)-, apanovi is a Non-Governmental Organization (ngo) created in 1979 and managed by blind people. Activities such as computer classes, cane making, sports, printing of utility bills in the Braille reading and writing system, and legal advice are carried out there. It is, thus, an institution oriented to be a support and meeting system for blind people as well as for the community in general. Another highlight of apanovi is that it gradually became an institution for consultation and control of municipal works that modify the materiality of public space. In this way, they are mediators in the relationship that exists between blindness, the State and the city when "urban adaptations" are proposed, those material devices that are installed to contribute to equity in the uses of the city, contemplating the diversity of corporealities and sensorialities that transit through the urban space.2

In apanovi I also met Santiago, president of the institution. Both he and Rubén lent themselves to several interviews between September 2018 and May 2019. One of them, with Santiago, was in the context of a walk through the streets around the institution, which was input for the sound ethnography that underpins this work. As president of apanoviSantiago is frequently consulted by different media and, for that reason, has a specially articulated narrative about what issues are at stake when passing through the city. We start from the door of apanovi (Images 2 and 3), under the highway, and we walk along Boedo Avenue, cross Cochabamba Street, continue until San Juan Avenue, where we turn, and walk until we turn into Maza Street, again until Cochabamba, and again until Boedo, where we return to the institution. At all times, Santiago tells me about the sounds he perceives and the interpretations he makes from his listening to move safely through the city. But before that, I would like to take up again some methodological contributions in order to state what I understand by sound ethnography.

Image 2. On Boedo Avenue, on the left hand side and under the 25 de Mayo highway, there are the facilities of apanovi. Parallel to Cochabamba Street we observe a sign that warns of the presence of traffic lights for the blind, which are not currently in operation for reasons that I will discuss later. Source: Photograph taken by the author on September 18, 2018.
Image 3. apanoviunder the 25 de mayo highway. Source: Photograph taken by the author on May 6, 2019.

What is a sound ethnography?

To begin with, we could point out that a sound ethnography is a methodological device to carry out anthropological research on social modes of sounding and listening (Vedana, 2010; Martin and Fernández Trejo, 2017) within the framework of an anthropology of sound, understood as a broad field of research whose axis is the explicit and conscious incorporation of listening modes and sonority in the anthropological question (Granados, 2018; Domínguez Ruiz, 2019). Following Miguel Alonso Cambrón (2010: 28), sound ethnography can be interested in the social construction of a sound, the ways of sounding that a particular place has, or the ways of listening of a specific social group, such as blind people in the urban space of Buenos Aires, in this case. Then, depending on the question guiding the research, the most pertinent methods will be used to open the listening to the environment and to the listening of the different interlocutors. In this line, sound ethnography can be defined as a particular mode of listening through which ethnographers focus "on the sensitive forms of social life, where sound represents an important source of sensitive information on the forms and arrangements of collective life" (Carvalho da Rocha and Vedana, 2009: 42).

There is another sense, moreover, that defines this sound ethnography, in which some visible elements are intermingled -the written and the images- with other audible ones. As Martín and Fernández Trejo (2017: 109) propose, a sound ethnography can have as its horizon the realization of "audio-documentaries as part of the process of knowledge production". This implies that the material for analysis, collected during fieldwork by different means -among them a tape recorder-, is reorganized and presented as a sound result, aiming to make the text both visible and audible. How do those objects, subjects, places that texts usually present in drawings, maps, photographs sound? Like images, which constitute a visual support, audios can be an auditory support -a sound image- of research, with the complex difference that, just as an image is expressed instantaneously, a sound has such a relationship with time that it cannot be understood except in duration: "if I stop the movement of sound I have nothing: only silence, no sound at all" (Ong, 2006: 38).

It is not superfluous to clarify, however, that recording does not replace listening. Listening is directed and contextualized, inseparable from the body, where the senses are intrinsically interconnected (Ingold, 2000). With field recording, tied to the imponderable and infinitely creative elements of the research in situWhat is allowed is, in a way, a capture of the sound phenomenon - ephemeral by nature - separated from the listener. In this way, there is a double mediation: the listening itself produced by the technical device, and the orientation of the one who records. What we have at the end, as a product, is a sonorous and audible record that contains a decontextualized sound, composed of what once sounded and stopped sounding (and entered the microphone's field of action). In front of us is the "sound object" (Schaeffer, 2003: 49), available to be reproduced and examined. It is the task of the researcher, then, to somehow reinstate the senses that give the entity of anthropological question to those sounds. To listen to them.

In this case, then, the sound ethnography that I present articulates sound recordings taken during the field research together with the interpretations that arise from the major question about the relationships between urban sonorities, listening and the daily transit through the city from a blind sensoriality. Some technical clarifications are in order. In addition to the images and sound recordings that illustrate and auralize different moments of the text, this sound ethnography focuses on the analysis of three audios, respectively of 3'27'' (3 minutes and 27 seconds), 6'03'' and 0'57''. These were created from a sound recording of a total duration of 17'11'', resulting from a field recording made by the author with a Tascam dr-22wl recorder, on May 15, 2019, during a walk in the neighborhood of Boedo, in the city of Buenos Aires. In this way, the sound recording contains a cut, typical of the editing and montage of the audios. The tour with Santiago along Boedo and San Juan Avenues and Maza and Cochabamba Streets is not presented in a linear way. The only thing that is maintained in this way is the beginning and the end. The audios were assembled according to the written story, where I present my interpretations of Santiago's listening and other interviews. However, and this seems important to me, there is no digital manipulation of the sound. As it was recorded, it went directly to the editing program where I made this rearrangement. Now, turn up the volume, or better yet -if you have it- put on your headphones.

Blind sensorialities

Audio 1

Sound and listening play a fundamental role in the urban experience of blind people. The field of sound is revealed to them in ways that those of us who see hardly perceive (Zuckerkandl, 1973), and it is from this listening that they construct their relationship with the world, causalities and movement. This is notable in the beginning of the audio, when we come out from under the highway. In an interview we had with Santiago before our walk, he pointed out the following:

The first times I came here, I arrived and the highway made a lot of noise. Not the freeway, not the cars above, those don't make noise, it's the cars below. It is a whole aerial highway, it is a bridge, the sound goes all the way to the side, and it was something that I did not understand at all, and I had been blind for a few years, it had never happened to me, little by little the ear is educated and begins to differentiate the noises. You know where you are walking, what is on the side, but it takes you a month (Santiago interview, May 6, 2019).

In the urban experience of blind people, this interrelationship between the dynamics of the acoustic substance and the role of listening in interpreting them is always present. When sound bounces, the "references"3 get lost and generate disorientation. Under the highway, reverberation and the displacement of sound to the sides blur the mental and practical construction of space, and the subject loses his or her center. New references must be produced or the subject must concentrate on following a path until the ear becomes accustomed and can again perceive and distinguish the emitting sources, their rhythms and directions. Noise, understood as moments of acoustic saturation, is an aspect that generally contributes to the loss of references. Let us consider those moments in which the acoustic effects of a construction or the traffic of an avenue are so strong that they mask4 our footsteps and voices, as well as the rest of the environment. We cannot hear anything but those noises until we finish crossing them, as when turning into a narrow street. For blind people, these noisy moments produce a silencing of their own corporeality, and a disorientation that is only resolved when they can reconstruct space (and, especially, their place in space), making sense of the distances that separate their body from the surfaces and objects of the environment.

According to Edward Hall (2003), Tim Ingold (2000) and David Le Breton (2009), the sensory experience of blind people deeply articulates auditory, tactile and olfactory perception. These are the sensory devices with which space is constructed, generating dynamic references through which they situate their corporeality in relation to space, time and movement (their own and others'). In this framework, hearing allows blind people to give account of "a sonorous contour of places" (Henri, 1958: 274, in Le Breton, 2009: 95) and thus reveal their body position and that of the different objects and surfaces of the environment, contemplating, in turn, what Walter Ong (2006: 75) has stated in relation to how from listening we can interpret the "interiority" of objects, spaces and people.

Blind people, in short, inhabit "sensory worlds" (Hall, 2003: 8) different from sighted people, so their references to space have a greater dynamism than the relative stability of sight. It is from their own movement that they construct space in the form of textures, smells and sounds of the environment. In this sense, blind sensoriality exceeds the acoustic, which is why many of the references of urban dynamics tend to bring tactile experience to the forefront. Take for example the movement of the subway, as Santiago told me in an interview. The subway, as it approaches the exit of the tunnel, expels a huge mass of air that is clearly perceptible. That wind surrounds us, moves the garbage on the floor and arrives a few seconds before the subway lights appear in the tunnel. People do the same thing. As we move, we move air to the sides, which from blindness is the indication of the presence of that movement. Therefore, the sensoriality of blind people reveals certain aspects of the environment in which we move, and of the different effects of our presence and movements in relation to that environment.

It is for these reasons that on several occasions Santiago tells me that I do not notice or do not necessarily pay attention to those elements that for him are obvious and fundamental in his transit through the city, such as the presence of drop-offs for cars or the entrances of buildings. His ear is educated to perceive these subtle acoustic changes, while I prioritize sight and must force myself to listen. And not only that, his hearing is in a permanent process of education, as he says that getting used to and understanding the sonority of the highway takes a period of one month.

References are learned in the daily practice of walking through the city from blindness. Any event can constitute a reference, based on people's usual circuits. A factory, a light pipe, stalls and gastronomic premises, a mechanical workshop, an air-conditioned building, are examples of how everything generates acoustic, haptic and olfactory stimuli that can be taken as a reference to situate the body itself in the web of urban relations. The listening of blind people, in this sense, presents a close link with urban sonority, that is, the acoustic phenomena that involve the human sensory experience and its behaviors in relation to the materiality of the city. It is from this listening focused on the existential characteristics of sound that the ear is educated to recognize recurring causes and build references that allow generating a map of the environment with the subject and his corporeality as the dynamic center of the experience. As proposed by Aguilar Díaz (2020: 31) in an ethnographic approach to the movements of a blind person through the historic center of Mexico City, there is an elaboration of "mental orientation maps" that organize the space through which one travels.

We could add, at the same time, that blindness constitutes an acousmatic experience (Schaeffer, 2003; Kane, 2014).5 which is developed, in part, in the dynamics of urban traffic. Returning to the classification of listening proposed by Schaeffer (2003: 61-66), the listening carried out from the blind experience is causal, by identifying the origin and characteristics of the emitting source; it is, of course, semantic, since it must detect the meaning of certain urban sound codes, such as the rhythm of traffic lights for the blind; and it is also reduced, focused on the acoustic properties and materialities of the environment. In the complexity of this listening, blind people are revealed "other modes of connection with the world, modes otherwise eclipsed by the domain of the eye" (Zuckerkandl, 1973: 3), and hear what Schafer (2009:33) has called "acoustic shadows", which is, in short, the aural construction that blind people make of the city from their daily experience of transiting and inhabiting it.

The imponderables of urban life (State, city and blindness)

Audio 2

In the search for references, the cane is a fundamental resource in the blind experience. Canes for the blind are collapsible aluminum tubes of four or five lengths, held together by elastic and with a plastic toe cap. When walking, the cane anticipates the next step to be taken by registering the person's shoulder width. This makes it possible to identify obstacles, such as a motorcycle parked on the sidewalk, which those of us who can see can easily avoid, but which for a blind person represents possible harm. When going from side to side, in reverse of the steps, the cane is gently tapped on the ground, producing an acoustic substance that is constantly interpreted as the change of texture on the sidewalks and the distance to the walls. While paying attention to the acoustic effect of the tapping, blind people are alert to their surroundings, identifying changes in the loudness of the space and the presence of possible obstacles, such as people or construction sites. In this sense, it is worth noting how this object is essential for the production of a series of listening practices through which blind people relate, in their displacements, with the materiality of the city and with other citizens, such as the moment in the previous audio when Santiago explains to me the strategy he has to identify the bus stop (which is noticed in the metallic blow produced in the impact of his cane with the pole), and how he appeals to other passers-by to know if he is in the right place.

Walls are always references for blind people. When there is a wall nearby, the acoustic effect was described as a "void", where listening ends in a slight resonance of the impact of the sound waves against the facade of the buildings. When the wall ends at the corners, the "open" is produced, the sonority changes, the cars on the sides are added, the listening also opens and allows to determine whether it is an avenue or a street, since the speed, the number of vehicles, the type of pavement, the width of the roadway, have effects on the way the sound is expressed. All this simultaneously with the movement of the blind person, who takes note of the sounds of the environment, but must continue walking. These data are important when crossing a street, added to other strategies linked to road culture (Wright, Moreira, & Soich, 2019; Wright, 2020). When the traffic light stops, Santiago waits a few seconds to cross because it is usual for motorcyclists to accelerate while still on red. The open is also perceived when there are entrances to parking lots, galleries, construction sites or ramps; those places where one feels that "there is something missing". As we walked, Santiago warned me when there were entrances and how the sound changed, bounced more and generated a sense of depth. Several times he pointed out to me that it was difficult for me to notice what he noticed, because when you look "you solve with your eyes". This became important when a car drove up a ramp after we passed. The entrance had no alarm, an absence that Santiago noted as especially dangerous, since the sidewalks are for pedestrian traffic and the entrance of a vehicle must be acoustically and visually signaled.

In this line, it is worth noting that in 2015 the governmental entity copidis (Commission for the Full Participation and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities) published the Practical Manual on Universal Designbased on Law 962/03 dedicated to urban accessibility. This manual sets out in a practical way what the city should look like in accordance with these legislative criteria. However, a problem that persists in the city of Buenos Aires is that the adaptations that are incorporated into the design are not always consulted with their direct users. At the same time, there is little or no information circulating about the function of the adaptations, which leads to confusion among both blind people and the rest of the population.

It is important, then, to understand that blind people inhabit and transit the city from a non-hegemonic sensoriality. Urban public policies aimed at the integration and coexistence of sensorialities not centered on sight are often ineffective, and this results in the lack of a general citizen notion of certain difficulties presented by the city. Or what to do when encountering blind people. The axis for thinking about these issues are certain inconsistencies and discontinuities presented by urban adaptations.

According to the 2010 census of the National Institute of Statistics and Census (indec), the city of Buenos Aires is home to 318,000 people with different levels of visual impairment, equivalent to approximately 11% of the total population as of that year. Therefore, in the design of the city there are urban adaptations that should ensure the transit of people. One of them is the traffic light for the blind, an invention of the Argentine Mario Dávila which, although it dates back to 1983, the first one was installed at the corner of Chacabuco and Independencia only at the end of 1998 (La Nación, 1998). Traffic lights for the blind have the quality of emitting acoustic warnings (they could well be called traffic lights) that blind people interpret to know whether or not they can cross a street. As of 2012, of the 3,660 street corners with traffic lights, only 36 had traffic lights adapted for the blind (Clarín, 2012). That year, Bill 4020, which proposed the adaptation of existing traffic lights, was vetoed by Decree 4/2012, justified on the grounds that three years was a short period for such work and that sound technology was not enough if the levels of noise pollution in the city are contemplated, since in many corners the noise of traffic masks the sound of traffic lights (Sound Record 2). However, that same year, the installation of traffic lights for the blind at 150 corners in the city began to be promoted, with the goal of expanding the scope to 400.

Sound recording 2. Traffic light for the blind of the first series, installed at the corner of Perú and Belgrano in downtown Buenos Aires. It is interesting to note how the traffic noise at times masks the sonority of the traffic light. Record taken by the author on June 18, 2018.

Before the installation of these traffic lights, apanovi was consulted by the municipality. The association had already experimented with engineers to generate their own traffic light system, which they tested at the corner of Boedo and Cochabamba, about thirty meters from the institution (Image 4). In one of the interviews, Santiago described to me how this traffic light works:

[each one] had a tiny remote control, like a matchbox, at that time, it was several years ago, you pressed and the traffic light said "wait for indications", it did not interrupt the traffic, it was not yet ready to cross; when it started it said "now you can cross Cochabamba street", it was here at the corner, "10 meters wide", it sounded a "10 meters wide", and it was ready to cross Cochabamba street. beepAnd when it was yellow, he would go faster, and then he would tell you "now you can cross Boedo Avenue, 18 meters wide". When that cycle was over, the traffic light stopped (Santiago interview, May 6, 2019).

Image 4. Talking device called lemwho gave indications on demand of the users. It is located on the corner of Cochabamba and Boedo, 30 meters away from apanovicurrently out of operation. Source: Photographs taken by the author on September 18, 2018.

This on-demand sound system had certain characteristics that benefited the safe circulation of blind people and their relationship with the rest of the population. First of all, once the traffic light was used, it stopped working until the next person activated it. This aspect was a relief for the residents of the intersection, whose first fear was that it would ring all day long. Secondly, the acoustic warnings were accelerated as the time to cross the street was running out, leading the user to hurry the crossing. If the system is widely used, it could also be installed in subway stations, public buildings and other spaces in the city. In fact, a similar system called Ciberpas is used in the city of Barcelona, which is activated with an omnidirectional remote control and also emits orientation, passing and completion signals (Cereceda Otárola, 2018:135).

However, what the municipality was looking for was not a real prior consultation with the user. At the time of the meeting, both Rubén and Santiago -who was not yet president- commented that the traffic lights had already been purchased and imported, and what was being sought was an institutional endorsement to carry out the installation. Let us bear in mind that, although traffic lights for the blind are always beneficial, these did not have the characteristics of the previous ones. The traffic lights that nowadays arbitrate the intersections of the city present certain particularities that sometimes are counter-intuitive. When they open, they emit a period of rapid sounds that are then spaced out until they become silent, interrupted by a beep sporadic that marks the presence of the crossing. Thus, instead of accelerating the pace and generating alertness, the warnings suggest a contradictory attitude (Image 5 and Sound recording 3). In turn, they operate throughout the day, increasing the volume during the day and lowering it at night. This tends to irritate the neighbors of the intersections, who often have to complain to the municipality (or else choose to break them).

Traffic light system currently in operation at intersections in the city of Buenos Aires. This traffic light for the blind is located at a crossing near the Plaza Virreyes station of the E Line of the subway. Source: Photograph taken by the author on May 6, 2019.
Sound recording 3. The image is complemented by this sound register, produced simultaneously by the author. This register shows how the traffic light has a period of fast sounds, and then a period of more spaced sounds, which in the blind experience is contradictory to the attitude that must be assumed when crossing a street. Note, in turn, the acoustic difference with sound recording 2, since they correspond to two types of traffic lights for the blind installed at different times.

The lack of consultation adds to the inconsistencies and discontinuities in other urban adaptations. As in the case of traffic light management, from apanovi has worked intensively in the design of adaptations for travel on public transport, for example, by promoting the law of announcement of train and subway stations, which serves as a sound reference for blind people and also for the general public. They were present in the management of tiles that function as a warning of abysses and guide on the sidewalks of public space, which are mentioned by Santiago in the first and last audio, as they are on the sidewalks of the association. There are two types of tiles that were selected apanovi and have contributed to greater safety for the visually impaired. The tiles with bubbles that warn of an imminent abyss, and those with gutters that serve as a guide for safe passage to turnstiles and subway and train stations (Image 6). They are yellow, also to alert people who, although not completely blind, have a high degree of visual impairment. However, these guides are not found in all stations and there is no effective dissemination about their operation, so sighted people often stand on them and obstruct the transit of blind people.

Thus, although in the last decade there has been an intention to improve the design of the city for the transit of people with different degrees of visual impairment, the relationship between the State, the city and blindness is still marked by this series of inconsistencies and discontinuities that force blind people to be guided by other types of references. The public space is full of obstacles that pose problems for transit. As can be perceived in the audio above, on the sidewalks there is scaffolding, motorcycles, bar tables and other lack of citizen consideration that have no real regulation. These inconsistencies or flaws in the design, then, mark how the State should promote continuous and consistent solutions, endorsed by users and transmitted to the citizens as a whole. But as long as this relationship continues in this vein, what stands out is the value for blind people of these listening practices and attention when they walk through public space.

Image 6. Tiles with bubbles mark the imminence of an abyss, while tiles with gutters point to a path. Source: Photographs taken by the author at the Boedo station of the E Line of the subway transportation, May 6, 2019.

Final words (and other sounds)

Audio 3

In this work I sought to capture some of the results of my research on sonorities and listening in Buenos Aires, specifically taking the case of blind sensorialities in urban transit. I did this in the format of a sound ethnography, an articulation of written text, images and sound recordings, taking advantage of the space provided by this type of editorial proposals for the multimedia production of results. Thus, at least two particularities of sound ethnography emerge, which we could think of in terms of a methodological contribution. Firstly, it is a research tool that introduces field recording and the explicit questioning of everyday sonorities and the listening of a subject or a social group. Secondly, that these materials are articulated and put in dialogue to present the results of the research in novel formats that are not reduced only to written anthropological interpretation, but that include aspects of the fieldwork that are rarely part of the research presentation and that end up accumulating in extensive corpus documentary materials that nourish the archives of researchers.

In the audios that precede each part of this work it is possible to perceive from the listening those ephemeral and dynamic ethnographic instances that served as a basis for the analysis focused on the existential characteristics of blind sensorialities, in permanent dialogue, tension and negotiation with the materiality of the city, sonority, urban rhythm and road practices in Buenos Aires. This highlights the vast possibilities open to research from an ethnographic listening that interpellates and denaturalizes everyday sound and aural worlds, in a critical path towards the differential ways in which we inhabit cities and transit through them. In this case, from an ethnographic otherness raised on a sensorial and perceptive level, it is clear how the dialogue between two different ways of listening to the same sounds, of perceiving urban sonorities and interacting with them, can lead to new research problems for urban studies, raised from an alternative ethnographic sensibility to the hegemony of the visual, the seen, the visible.

This interest is encompassed in proposing research from and through sound, taking into account that although hearing functions at a physiological level, it "belongs to a great extent to culture, it is above all a cultural organ" (García, 2007: 63). In this sense, starting from an ethnographic and social question about the listening of the subjects and their perception of certain expressions of the audible world allows us to contextualize this auditory experience and establish connections in a larger sphere of historical, social and political relations. In the work developed here, this is evident in the discontinuities and inconsistencies presented by the urban adaptations of the city of Buenos Aires for the safe transit of many of its inhabitants, an aspect of a defective historical relationship between the State, the city and the non-hegemonic sensorialities and corporealities that inhabit and transit it. This defective relationship highlights the permanent work of negotiation for the materiality of the city that emerges from organizations like apanovi. So, although there are criteria for the city to be accessible and passable for all citizens, and there are non-governmental entities directed by blind people, there is no real consultation with the direct users of the different urban adaptations, which often leads to transforming the appearance of the city without considering the different sensorialities and corporealities from which the urban experience is built.

On the other hand, this case study focused on blind sensoriality allows us to account for some elements of urban sonorities that go unnoticed in the sighted experience. Let us return briefly to the audible elements of this work. As I pointed out at the beginning, the sound recording implies a decontextualized listening. At the time, I had to force my listening to perceive the acoustic elements that Santiago pointed out to me as evident, always under the assumption that it should be difficult, and even unnecessary, for us to pay attention to the same thing. Listening again to the route taken, now through the ears of the recording, I can notice certain issues that went unnoticed on the walk, or that I naturalized as the minutes went by. The cane that never stops tapping or dragging on the ground, and that serves to perceive changes in acoustics and textures. It is also noticeable how the same cane allows us to intuit the changing speed we use in the walk. It is clear, after several listens, the acoustic transformation that occurs when exiting or entering under the highway. We can define with increasing clarity the voices of the people who fleetingly become the protagonists of our conversation, those who, as we passed, stuck immobile to the walls, or like the child who caused us to slow down our walk. The volumes of our own voices vary at different times, depending on the greater or lesser background noise. Every now and then, a vehicle surprises as it accelerates. The clang of the metal of some tool hitting the ground announced loudly the presence of a construction site, where my main fear was that there was some wire that I had not registered with my sight and that would injure us in some way. And finally, something very subtle of this final audio, which is the moment when Santiago passes to my left to follow the path of the guide-tiles (Image 7), which generates a different spatialization of the sound captured by the recorder.

All these issues show the profound relationship that exists between blind people and urban sonorities when walking through the city, which, unlike the perception of sighted people, are constituted as dynamic references to locate the body in relation to time and space. In blind sensoriality, then, the noise that characterizes cities annuls the reference points necessary to move through them. This happens when the acoustic emissions of the cane are masked or silenced by some acoustically saturated event of the urban sonority; or when, for the same reason, listening cannot connect with some emission that reorients the trajectory. But these reference points, being dynamic and arbitrary, can also be silenced. It could even be a defective light pipe on the sidewalk of an avenue that is removed or fixed. There, in the face of this silence, new listening points will be sought to restore orientation to the body. In short, silence is not as problematic as noise in blind sensorialities, since the acoustic emissions of the body itself always create the space for listening.

Image 7. Guide tiles installed on the sidewalk at apanovi To counteract the irregularity of the wall. Source: Photograph taken by the author on May 6, 2019.

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Facundo Petit D. and Professor of Anthropology (Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina). Postdoctoral Fellow of the conicet (2021-2024). He participates in three research projects: the Anthropology of Religion Team (ear), Culturalia, and the Pallqa Archaeological and Anthropological Project. Some of his work can be consulted at: https://fyl.academia.edu/FacundoPetit

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