Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Environmentalists Abide: Listening to Whale Music - 1965-1985

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Environmentalists Abide: Listening to Whale Music - 1965-1985

Article excerpt

Introduction

At one point in the film The Big Lebowksi (1997), a stressed out "Dude" (Jeff Bridges) needs to relax. The Dude's solution is whale music - instrumental music that samples or thematizes whales--the sounds of which offer a blissful escape from the worries of the day. The scene works because the Dude is an ageing hippie, a living artifact of 1960s popular culture. And hippies, best known as popular purveyors of environmentalist values (harmony, one-ness, etc.), gravitate toward the sounds of whales, perhaps the most environmental of all popular sounds. The purpose of this paper is to explain why whale music has these associations, and what they teach us about environmental ideology more generally. Since its heyday, whale music has been very much the worse for wear--"excruciatingly familiar" in the words of one early Nineties music critic (The Wire, 1992). But "one decade's cliche, is an earlier decades' watershed" (Purdy, 2015: 198). Whale music helps to explain how people navigated the swell of environmentalist ideas that washed over white middle-class society beginning in the late Sixties. It was not only a sound-track for interrogating nature during a time of ecological crisis--an historical period that bears stark resemblance to our own - but a site of surprising contradiction, informing distinct relationships among widely-different currents of environmentalist thought and activity.

This paper uses ideology theory to construct its history of whale music. I take Althusser's (2014) formative definition of ideology--the "imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (30)--and refine it with insights drawn from Antonio Gramsci, John Mowitt, and Neil Smith. The goal of this approach is to reveal environmentalism a sonorous formation--a belief system that recruited subjects into sonically-mediated realms of thought, action, and subjectivity. For environmentalists who came of age in the 1970s, listening to whales fostered complex interrogations about the identity of nature and the nature of identity (Weyler, 2004). It modeled new interests in "communing with nature" (Fletcher, 2014), proposing experiences that self-identifying environmentalists were particularly interested in acquiring. Whale music's history represents an instance of environmentalism as a sonorous formation: an ideological-system that recruited listeners into musically-mediated realms of thought, action, and subjectivity. Presented as "music," the sounds of whales became communicative, personally-fulfilling, and community-constitutive all at once.

In making my case, I gratefully acknowledge calls for "radically expanding listening in human geography" (Gallagher et al., 2016: 1). Geographical scholarship has shown how sounds shape political processes (Kanngieser, 2012); mediate experiences of public memory and everyday life (Anderson, 2004), and provoke new understandings of movement and landscape (Revill, 2014). I argue that music remains relevant within geography's recent embrace of sound studies, and in ways that complicate distinctions between musical and environmental sound. The history of whale music can contribute to geography's efforts to examine the ideological in environmentalism (Peet and Watts, 2004; Robbins, 2007) and grasp how environmentalist ways of life are lived and pursued. Cronon (1996) discusses how wilderness pursuits privilege sight as the way to engage nature; nature experienced and rendered as sublime landscape. Without detracting from this claim, I want to present music as a modality of experience that is significant to how ideologies of nature function. This is because "the work of music is not only a performance of a social order," as Denning (2015) argues, "its very forms present an abstract model of the social order" (11).

With the whale music of the early Seventies, the imagined social orders were diverse, illustrative of the fact that the "modern environmental movement" was actually an array of social and political projects (Rome, 2003). …

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