Paper: Through the ear of a raindrop (2011)

Hello there!

Wow, it’s been nearly a month since my last post. I’m happy to say I made it to the other end of three very busy weeks at school, completing essays for courses in tourism geography (with Sallie Wilton Yea) and cultural-geographical analysis (with Tim Bunnell).

Here’s the one I did for Tim’s class. His challenge for us was to write a hypothetical cultural-geographical research project on any one of these topics, randomly selected during our first class: rain, alcohol, Chinese New Year, piligrimage, and tiger(s). Really random, right.

Since I have a lot of catching up to do in human geography, I tried to hit three birds with one stone by choosing essay topics that will (1) put me in touch with the must-read developments in human geography, (2) be somehow useful in my thesis research on musicians’ migration, and (3) fulfill class requirements, of course. (Sorry for the animal cruelty-laden metaphor—I am not condoning the hitting of birds!)

I came across the Henri Lefebvre’s concept of rhythmanalysis in a great essay by Tim Cresswell (2010) on the politics of mobility. I thought it might be interesting to do a rhythmanalysis of rain and commuting—and since migrants’ experiences and perspectives are interesting (not to mention personally relevant) to me, I decided to suggest a rhythmanalysis of commuting in the rain for Filipino migrants in Singapore—and argue that this particular experience plays a hand in shaping how these people view and live out all those tricky binaries between home/abroad, native/foreigner, mahirap/mayaman (poor+hard/rich+easy), and so forth.

My new friends in the geography department generously suggested names and works to look up. Yi’En was extremely helpful and sent me an English translation of Rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre, 2004). Four works served as my conceptual and methodological exemplars for this piece: Paul Simpson’s (2008) rhythmanalysis of street performances in London; Jennie Middleton’s (2010) embodied geography of urban walking; a lovely Seamus Heaney poem (the essay title is a line from that poem); and Michael Gallagher’s (2011) ongoing research on sonic methodologies in human geography (also found out about him through Yi’En—thanks very much, dear!).

Neat stuff. I definitely want to follow in Michael Gallagher’s direction in my own research, particularly since I’m researching music performance and formation. It’s my absolute dream to do a subtle, dynamic, and engaging radio documentary in the style of RadioLab or This American Life for my thesis, alongside the written product. I hope learning the technical recording stuff won’t be so hard (or expensive). I kind of copped out with this proposal by suggesting that my research subjects just use portable digital music recorders.

Listening just demands a different kind of awareness—diffuse and focused at the same time. It’s the kind of awareness that enables people to hear individual instruments and the whole orchestra at the same time. I’m excited to explore this kind of reflection on music, sound, listening, and space—and even more excited to do this within the context of academic research. People learn and acquire knowledge in all kinds of creative ways; and academia can be expanded to reflect those different practices.

If I seriously want to pursue this sonic methodology thing though, I’ll have to invest in some real portable recording technology. Luckily my brother is a studio engineer—crossing my fingers that he’ll teach me the ropes (and lend me some of his stuff!).

You must have noticed by now that I like long preambles. 🙂 On to the essay then. Please don’t copy-paste any of this stuff without permission—apart from ethical citing and all that, there’s the obvious part about it being pangit, hehe.


Through the Ear of a Raindrop: A Sonic Rhythmanalysis of Commuting in Inclement Weather.

In this essay, I propose a methodological study of rain, in the specific context of Filipino migrants’ commuting experiences in Manila and Singapore. This essay operates on two premises: (1) everyday commuting comprises the most immediate and ubiquitous form of interaction with and movement in the city; and (2) rain interrupts this habitualized practice and opens an ‘evental’ space (Simpson, 2008: 810) that clarifies our understanding of ourselves and/in the city by its very interruption. To this end, I suggest the usage of sonic diary-recordings of rainy commuting journeys to centre the migrants’ embodied and embedded perspectives of what it means to inhabit transnational urban spaces of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’.

A Downpour of Meanings. A city rained upon is a city transformed. Rain, whether drizzle or downpour, not only poses a major engineering challenge for Southeast Asian cities. It also shapes the everyday lives of urban dwellers. Rain signals the disruption of, among other things: activities (tours, games, outdoor performances, the proverbial parades), industries (construction, commerce, tourism, transport), and general health (Foong, 2007; Koh, 2011; Simpson, 2008). Most frequently, it interrupts commuting trajectories. The bane of timetables, rain causes  the ‘implicit correct and regular movements of the daily commute’ to grind to a halt (Cresswell, 2010: 23). It short-circuits the linear rhythm—defined by Henri Lefebvre as originating in ‘social practice, and therefore human activity: the monotony of actions and movements, imposed structures’ (2004: 8).

Yet it also instigates movement. Resistant to even the most sophisticated meteorological systems of prediction, the rhythm of rain transforms routine into improvisation. The automatic walk to the bus terminal, train station, or building in Singapore speeds up or slows down, and becomes running, wading, evading, bounding, gingerly treading. When typhoons pummel Manila and suspend the spatiotemporal regimes of work and school, rain brings about a near-anarchic glee. This exemplifies what Lefebvre calls the cyclical rhythm—found ‘in the cosmic, in nature: days, nights, seasons, the waves and tides of the sea, monthly cycles, etc.’ (2004: 8). Though repetitive, ‘the cycle has the appearance of an event and an advent’ (Lefebvre and Régulier, 2004: 73; in Simpson, 2008: 815).

Lefebvre notes how the cyclical and the linear, while discrete analytical categories, are in reality inseparable:  ‘the bundle of natural rhythms wraps itself in rhythms of social or mental function’ (2004: 9). Thus his unique analysis of diverse rhythms (rhythmanalysis) demonstrates ‘the interrelation of understandings of space and time in the comprehension of everyday life’ (Edensor, 2004b: vii).

It is through this rhythmanalytic lens—which studies the interlocking of rhythms both linear and cyclical, cultural and natural —that I inquire into the significance of rain in commuting practices of Filipino migrants who come from Manila to work in Singapore. Two questions guide this essay: (1) How does rain transform Filipino migrants’ experience as commuters in/between Manila and Singapore? (2) What methods can be used to investigate these affects and effects?

In their efforts to navigate the different rhythms of the public transport system—‘fitting in’, ‘catching up’, ‘knowing one’s way around’, ‘being in the right place at the right time’—Filipino migrants’ quotidian trajectories embody the emotional politics of transnational urban migration: contradictory feelings of safety, convenience, alienation, and exclusion in the host society; and nostalgia for and frustration with the home society. I argue that commuting in the rain in these geographic locations of Manila and Singapore plays a crucial part in Filipino migrants’ transnational politics of placemaking, as they familiarize themselves with the locale, discern a sense of place, and build embodied knowledges of themselves and/within these places (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2009: 186; Agnew, 1987: 28, quoted in Staeheli and Mitchell, 2009: 187; see also Conradson and Latham, 2005; Conradson and McKay, 2007).

This comparative study of transnational migrants’ experiences of commuting in the rain thus aims to give voice to a valuable but oft-neglected perspective of contemporary urbanism. By studying the  shifting tensions between ‘organized/clean/safe/fair-weathered’ Singapore versus ‘unruly/dirty/dangerous/ typhoon-stricken’ Manila that emerge in migrants’ commuting practices, I question the binary between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ cities and decentre the hierarchizing prejudice of modernist urban theory (Butcher, 2011; Robinson, 2006).

My methodology draws from rhythmanalysis and non-representational theory (Thrift, 1997, 2007) to identify the body as the scalar locus of dynamic interrelations of space and time. Non-representation focuses on ‘mundane practices that shape the conduct of human beings towards others and themselves in particular sites’ (Thrift, 1997: 127, quoted in Simpson, 2008: 809, my emphasis) and  performances, which are ‘multifarious, open encounters in the realm of practice’ (Lorimer, 2005: 84).

To this end, I wish to employ sonic methods to situate the research subjects as they move through the everyday soundscapes of commuting in inclement weather (Anderson, 2005; Gallagher, 2011; Saldanha, 2009: 237). I contend that we must listen, in Seamus Heaney’s words, ‘through the ear of a raindrop’ (1998: 371), to discern how the migrant’s polyrhythmic negotiation of her sensory pathways and life-paths in rainy commuting resonates across the larger spaces of transnational urban mobilities.

Contextualization With(in) Cultural Geographies. Cultural analyses of the experience of rain in urban settings have been limited to unpacking locals’ attitudes towards rain within European, Australian, and American public spaces and domestic green spaces  (Gigerenzer, 2005; Head and Muir, 2007). A notable exception is Simpson’s rhythmanalytic study of street performers in London and their adjustments to inclement weather (2008). There has yet to be an exploration of urban commuting in inclement weather, and of the embodied experience of that spatio-temporal-meteorological milieu, much less from the perspective of transnational migrants.

There exists a larger body of academic research on sensuous urban experiences (McCormack, 2002, 2005; Simpson, 2008) across a range of transport modes and experiences: walking (Adams and Guy, 2007; Hall, 2009; Ingold, 2004; Middleton, 2010), automobiles (Bull, 2004; Edensor, 2004a; Featherstone, 2004; Sheller and Urry, 2000; Thrift, 2004), trains (Bissell, 2009), coach tours (Edensor and Holloway, 2008), biking (Jones, 2004), and waiting (Vannini, 2011). However, as Middleton observes, much of the literature on walking centres more on what may be seen as exceptional instances of moving on foot: leisure walking, nature walking, or artistic walking (2010: 576). In its study of daily commuting via various modes of transport, this essay takes its cue from Middleton’s (2010) research on the more mundane and habitual forms of walking, to highlight how even everyday commuting is comprised of  ‘heterogeneous assemblages of embodied practices, sensual knowledges, affectual relations, and spatio-temporal configurations’ (585).

This study also seeks to situate cultural-geographic analyses of migrants’ daily commutes within the research fields of transnationalism and movement in ‘mobile Asian cities’ (Oswin and Yeoh, 2010), and argues for the significance of commuting as a pivotal site for complex subjectivities (Butcher, 2011; McLafferty and Preston, 1991). Lastly, by employing a sonic method in addressing issues of everyday transnational mobilities within Asian urban milieux, the study hopes to broaden the methodological possibilities of mobilities research  (Bull, 2004; D’Andrea, 2011).

Methodology. The ethnographic research proposes the usage of audio recordings of subjects’ commutes during the Southeast Asian summer monsoon season (May-July), and will involve the participation of Filipino migrants working in Singapore who make occasional (once every three months) or frequent (at least once a month) visits to Manila. A snowball sampling method will be employed to find subjects across social categorical variances in gender, labour sector, and legal status.

Subjects will be given small digital recorders and be requested to keep audio logs of their commuting journeys in Manila and Singapore during periods of rainfall. They will be given free rein as to the content of the recordings—they may expound on their impressions and feelings, or simply record the incidental sounds of rain, traffic, and chatter. A modicum of information (date, time, place, mode of transport, perceived intensity of rainfall) will be required to keep track of the event.

These sonic diaries will then be used as material for individual interviews and group discussions. The recordings from Manila and Singapore will be replayed one after the other, to encourage participants to make cross-spatial linkages between (1) the inclement urban landscapes of rain, and (2) the subjective, affective landscapes of both cities as ‘home’ and ‘abroad’/’work’, and of themselves as ‘foreigners’/’locals’.

As a research method, sound recording harmonizes well with the core notions of non-representational theory and rhythmanalysis, with the former’s identification as a ‘theory of mobile practices […] and everyday activities as embodied dispositions’ (Cadman, 2009: 458-459). I argue that that audio recordings, as ‘traces’ of sensory pathways (Gallagher, 2011), enable the subjects to reflexively reveal their corporeal performances as commuters (and migrants, foreigners, or residents) within the transitory, evental moment of rain.

Similarly, as Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalytical Project has strong and obvious metaphorical foundations in musical concepts—rhythm, harmony, measure, melody—it makes sense to deploy sonic methods towards reaching a lived understanding of time and space that does not rely on models of calculation and measure (Edensor, 2004b: xi). Audio recordings fit the bill for a Rhythmanalytical Project, which stresses the interlocking rhythms of linear repetitives and cyclical repetition which produce instances of either arrythmia (a clashing of rhythms) or eurythmia (a working harmony) (Simpson, 2008: 824). One rhythmanalytically performs the commuter role by mastering linear and cyclical rhythms: navigating spatial routes, negotiating different modes of transport, and enacting the sundry practices of ‘traveling’: queueing, waiting, squeezing into space to ‘make room’, paying, etc.

While an emphasis on sound may risk the erroneous conceptualization of senses as discrete, acoustic space matters in a distinct way from (yet in concert with) other sensory experiences of the urban environment. As Middleton states, ‘the intensification of certain senses at certain times makes us aware of corporeal planes of experience’ (2010: 577).

I likewise contend that the multi-sensory activity of commuting in the rain intensifies (and is intensified by) the aural sense. Heaney describes the sound of rain as ‘the music that you would never have known / to listen for’ (1998: 371). Its many voices—‘downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash’ (Heaney, 1998: 395)—speak the space of the ever-moving present. By listening to commuting subjects in the moment of their actual negotiations with nature, technology, infrastructure, and fellow commuters, the sonic diary reveals an ambient, and integral, mode of awareness (Middleton, 2010: 585).

This is evident in recording—a specialized/spatialized, technologically extended instance of hearing—which Michael Gallagher (2011) notes is by no means a ‘pure’ and static documentation. As he writes, ‘it’s all too easy to slip into believing that is in some way ‘capturing’ sound so that the original experience can be ‘re-lived’ later. I’m inclined instead to think about audio recording as a form of performance in which a whole host of elements are orchestrated together—sound vibrations, air, mics, headphones, ears, fingers, level controls, meters, eyes, silicon chips, electrons, and so on. The result is by no means a ‘captured’ sound’ (2011).

By giving my research subjects the widest berth possible to sonically record and interpret their commuting journeys, I hope to realize, however modestly (Latham, 2003: 2012) some of the co-creative possibilities available in knowledge production (Nagar, 2003) and practice  ‘a more experimental and flexible attitude towards both the production and interpretation of research evidence [in human geography]’ (Latham, 2003: 1993, 2012).

Conclusion. In this essay I have tried to show how rain, in its advental and circular rhythm, interrupts the monotony of commuting and alters our perceptions and performances of the city. The embodied perspectives of Filipino migrants are, I argue, unique in that their parallel histories of rain unfold/enfold in their commuting trajectories in Manila and Singapore. I propose that paying attention to these histories via a sonic rhythmanalysis can clue us in to the lived understandings of the transnational migrant experience. It is my hope that listening ‘through the ear of a raindrop’ reveals the hidden resonances between individual lives and larger currents of society.

[Erratum. The Seamus Heaney poem, “The Rain Stick”, is on p. 371 and not p. 395 as previously stated.]


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  1. chengyien says:

    thanks for thanking me! very welcome~ and i like how you worked in rhythmanalysis to rain… indeed, “a city rained upon is a city transformed” – love how this statement evokes a rich image… i can almost immediately imagine once the rain come down, people scatter to the shelters, you see umbrellas ‘popping’ out, like flowers blooming (from the bird’s eye view)… and yes, i think the whole sonic methodology sits in well with your research. 🙂

    • helloise says:

      hey yi’en. thanks for thanking to thank me! 🙂

      i was amazed there wasn’t more research on rain in urban and social/cultural geography – as you point out, it’s both visceral and cinematic – not to mention increasingly central to the life of cities as we grapple with climate change. plus, it seems like a promising crossover topic between physical and human geography. i hope i eke out more time to think and read about this.

  2. Kara says:

    This is so interesting. Rain really is a force of nature, in more ways than one. Something about it, even just the smell of an impending shower, has such an ability to change your disposition and movements so easily.

    I really enjoyed reading this! Looking forward to hearing how all this will turn out when you get the results from your test subjects. SICKNING!

    • helloise says:

      sickningnohh?! thanks darling! this is a hypothetical research project so i actually don’t have the funds to do this – i just got graded for the proposal. maybe i could just make myself the sole research subject. :p

      yes, rain and weather more generally seem to be the only “assertions” of nature in cities today, especially the rich, extremely modernized ones like singapore. although: one thing i didn’t note here was how rain itself is being altered by human activity because of pollution. it makes me sad that rain in manila (and manila in the rain) is so much dirtier than it was just a decade ago. it would be unthinkable for kids today to play in the rain like we did before. (although squatter kids still do that… which means there’s a big class thing going on too). heck, i don’t even know if kids today enjoy the pleasure of eating fruits from the trees in their backyard.

      n.b.: ‘manila in the rain’ = 😀

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