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13 Things 2009

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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

Search Brown



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Hear: The Audible Articulation of Visitation

We have looked at, and lifted the knocker. When we let it fall, there is a sound, a knock to be specific. But here, an interesting question suddenly envelops our tactile-visual understanding of the door knocker. This is the question of the value of the door knocker’s knock, the potential of the tactile experience of the knocker to produce an audible value. Does the knocker own this knock? Is this knock the knocker? Does this knock represent a part of it’s unique construction, experience, and identity? Or is the knock mere a potential production, rooted in the visiting subject, who (what) causes the object to articulate this quality?

We lift the knocker again. And let it fall. There is another sound. Another knock.

Whatever the door knocker is, the knock cannot be divorced from it. A knocker that does not knock is not a not a knocker. In this capacity, it is critical that we engage the knocker along a new sensory dimension: the experience of sound and hearing. Jonathan Sterne, a professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh has said that it is impossible to think or define sound and hearing without engaging with the idea of the human. As he wrote in 2003, “human beings reside at the center of any meaningful definition of sound” (Sterne 11). For us, this serves to complicate our understanding of the knock rather than to simplify it. Because the knock is fundamentally a sound, and Sterne argues that the definition (and thus experience) of sound is ultimately human, than in many ways the knock only exists as a discrete object in the experience of an individual.

This brings back to our previous studies in the door knocker as a visual and tactile object. Just as it was impossible to separate the human seeing or touching a knocker from the idea of the knocker, we now must consider the knock as an experience impossible without a human subject. More challenging perhaps, is the fact that this knock, this sound, is the first value we have which must be shared between subjects. In order for the door knocker to be fulfilling its purpose, it must produce a sonic value that is perceived not only by the individual that made it, but the individual to whom it is sent or loosely addressed. The knock, it follows, is a form of communication, an audible communication.

For over 16 of the door knockers on Benefit Street, I made field recordings of the sound of their knocks. This was a highly problematic task, I admit, as there was no way for me to apply the same force, pace of strike, and style of knock at each door to produce an empirical, objective recording of the sounds of these door knocker’s knocks. But in many ways I didn’t need to. Most of the knockers sounded radically different. Some had high tinny knocks, and others long low knocks. What I discovered, was that the weight and material of the knockers contributed extensively to the type of tone they produced. Shape and form also impacted sound quality, although I have yet to find a good way to link the different sound qualities of two knockers to their shapes as sea shells or pineapples.

Perhaps more interesting that the differences between the sound of knockers, were their commonalities. If one were to run audio diagnostics on the sound clips, they would likely discover a common sonic range. In fact, one of the only major things setting the knockers apart, was the creak of their hinges rather than the sound of their knock. As we the touch of older, or more rusted knockers, I was able to connect the sound of creaky door knocker’s to a lack or very limited use. Knockers that swung without creaks were either new, well maintained, or frequently used.

But what does the sound mean? In many ways, it is an artifact along Michael Shanks’ definition, as an item that is both a signifier and a signified. This is because the creation of the sound, both signifies and is a signifier of a person at a door. By nature of the design of the knockers, which are too heavy to knock in the wind, the knock is the means by which one is made aware of a presence. This presence is both for the resident inside a home, who hears this presence, and the visitor himself, whose tactile engagement with the knocker serves to articulate himself. A knock does not necessarily carry any information about the identity of a visitor, and yet it may also be made to be an auditory signature of a particular identity. This is the much fetishized ‘secret knock’ which only has value as a specific sign when it is known by both the knocking visitor and the listening resident.

There is a danger here of denying or ignoring the door knocker as the material mediation of this communication. Clearly this cannot be done. In the sound of a knock, there is a specific tonal quality which is imparted by the material of the knocker, it’s age and maintenance, and it’s size and weight. In this capacity, the door knocker is not simply a tool in the production of the knock, but a site of sound production and in fact, a major determination in the nature of the knock. If one were to have two doors at a home for instance, the knockers might have different sounds which would be readily differentiated by a resident. They might also travel differently through the home, thus revealing which door had been knocked on by the sound of the knock referring back to the location of the knocker.

It is also important that we consider that door as a part of the sound production. When the knocker is lifted, and struck, the reverberations of the strike must travel through the door, and through the open space of the hallway or room by the door. Here again, the knock proves its complex status, as a knock cannot really be said to be mediated by a knocker alone, but also by the door and the space behind it. Often, it is the space the creatures the most distinct tonal characteristics of the knock. One woman told me that because of the long hallway behind her door, the knocker always made a frighteningly loud, hard sound. “It’s like the police are here,” she explained.

Other home owners said that the sound of the knock could impart a sense of who was at the door, and what the nature of their business was. Some knocking styles, one resident, explained, seemed friendly while others were more businesslike. These kind of differentiations, informed by experienced perhaps more than any essential qualities of the knock, reinforce the difficult critical evaluation of the nature of the knock. Perhaps most interestingly, one Benefit Street resident told me that she generally forgets that she has a door knocker. “I don’t think about it at all,” she said, “until somebody knocks.”

This statement confirms what might be the ultimate value of the knock to the door knocker, and the relationship it helps govern. Between a person at the door, come to visit or solicit, and a person inside, the knocker actually sounds different but points to the same thing: the door knocker itself, which in this process comes to mean the door. So the resident, walks over to the door, and “answers” it. And this act, this completing of the circuit, helps us see the knock as a speaking, an articulation, a communication. And what these ultimately means for the door knocker, is that as practical object, embedded with a network of uses, meanings, and symbolic values, we too can knock on the door, and see who or what will answer.