Archive by Author | sceraso

The Plasticity of Listening: Deafness and Sound Studies

"Listening Post" by Flickr User Theory

“Listening Post” by Flickr User Theory

Editor’s Note: Steph Ceraso‘s post wraps up Sounding Out!’s three-part February forum on the intersection of deafness, Deaf Studies, and sound studies.  However, SO! would like this series to open an ongoing conversation. If  you would like to respond to these posts and/or pursue your own avenue of inquiry, please direct your pitches to jsa@soundingoutblog.com. We’d love to hear from you.  By the way, if you missed (or want to re-read) Liana Silva‘s “Listen to the Word: Deafness and Participation in Spiritual Community” click here and C.L. Cardinale‘s “my mother’s voice, my father’s eye, and my other body: the sound of deaf photographs” click here.

There is no difference in being deaf or hearing—one will always appreciate the subtleties of sound because of the ability to feel things in greater depth to what the ear alone will allow us to hear. -Evelyn Glennie from Shirley Salmon’s Hearing—Feeling—Playing: Music and Movement with Hard-of-Hearing and Deaf Children

I am not deaf, nor am I someone who is affiliated with the scholarly field of disability studies. However, I am someone who is very interested in expanding notions about what it means to listen. For my dissertation research, I have been working on developing a theory of what I call “multimodal listening.” Rather than understanding listening as something that is dependent upon the ears, “multimodal” listening refers to the various ways in which sound is felt throughout the body (via vibration), and to the multiple senses in addition to the auditory sense that are employed during a listening event.

Photo by Flickr User jimmiehomeschoolmom

Because of my interest in moving beyond ear-centric models of listening, I really appreciated Liana M. Silva’s recent post on the Deaf International Community Church (DICC). I was especially struck by how her experience as a hearing individual attending a Deaf church service suddenly defamiliarized her own relationship to sound and voice. The visual nature of this service, which was conducted through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), prompted her to consider listening practices that do not rely on a fully functioning auditory system.

I wonder, though, if swapping the ears for the eyes is still too limiting—too dependent on a single mode. For instance, if a non-signing deaf person was attending a service similar to the one Silva described, visual listening (in a discursive sense) would not be a possibility. My use of “deaf” (with a small “d”) is a strategic choice here. The descriptor “Deaf” (with a capital “D”), as Silva uses it in her discussion of the church, is almost always employed to refer to the Deaf Community as a cultural and linguistic entity, whereas “deaf” refers to an audiological deficiency. Since the use of ASL is most often associated with individuals in the Deaf community, those who do not sign would most likely avoid churches like the DICC. However, depending on the acoustics and the material features of the church, a non-signing deaf person might be able to experience the sound of music through vibration in a more full-bodied kind of listening practice.

Photo by Flickr User curran.kelleher

Listening via vibration is something that Cara Cardinale Fidler writes about in her poetic account of growing up with deaf parents. She remembers,

In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf where my parents were chaperones. It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus.  It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo.

In this passage, Cardinale Fidler amplifies the tactile experience of sound—the ability of all bodies to listen-feel through the force of vibration. Sometimes we feel sound in our guts or throats or teeth, but this is not usually an aspect of listening that most people with a working auditory system meditate on, or try to refine in any way.

I think it is important to acknowledge, as Silva and Cardinale Fidler do by example, that the labels “deaf” and “hearing” are not as clear-cut as they may seem. There is a whole range of auditory function among people who are given these labels, or who fit somewhere between them. Sound scholars might think of deafness, then, not as a uniform lack, but as a range of listening practices in which sensory modes other than the ears are employed. Some people rely more on one mode than others, and some might develop synesthetic listening practices.

Evelyn Glennie, playing the marimba faster than the camera can cope with, Photo by Flickr User Bankside

For instance, in the documentary Touch the Sound, percussionist Evelyn Glennie uses the convergence of sound, sight, and touch in her own listening training. We need to start thinking about listening less in terms of binaries (e.g. you either have the capacity to listen or you do not), and more in terms of possibilities. The fact that bodies can be retrained to experience listening via multiple modes highlights the extremely flexible, plastic nature of listening habits and practices. In considering this diverse range of listening possibilities, I wonder how we might design more listening experiences that are truly multimodal—that require or at least present the possibility of listening with more than one sensory mode. How might we expand the listening capacities of all bodies?

Deaf space and architecture is one area that is beginning to take up such questions. Based on the concept of universal design, which emphasizes the production of products and environments that are accessible to both so-called “disabled” and “able-bodied” individuals, deaf architecture considers the ways in which deaf listening bodies move through and communicate within space. These spaces seem particularly well-designed for visual and tactile listening situations. For example, according to blogger Scott Rains, some key principles of deaf architecture include: the use of partial walls or open concept spaces, no sharp angles and curved corners to increase visual range, no sources of glaring light that might impede vision, and wooden floors for more pronounced vibration. Bodies, spatial and material configurations, and the senses were all taken into account in this kind of design. The visual and tactile elements in these spaces accommodate particular bodies and communication practices, but there would be no need for such spaces without the existence of those particular bodies and communication practices. The design of deaf architecture is based on the reciprocal relationship between cultural and physiological needs, which in turn broadens the listening possibilities of the inhabitants of deaf spaces.

The Myer Music bowl, where the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra accompanies Evelyn Glennie, photo by Flickr User learza.

Deaf studies and deaf scholars have much to contribute to sound studies. Expanding ideas about what it means to listen, coming up with new ways to extend the capacities of all listening bodies, and developing more dynamic and complex theories of listening will require sound studies scholars to think about listening not only in terms of the ears, but in terms of bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics. In this sense, deafness may be one of the most significant and generative areas of research in the continuing development of sound and listening studies.

Conversely, sound studies can offer deaf studies fresh ways to think about how sound shapes/enhances/disrupts deaf cultural practices. As we have seen from the examples above, sound plays a powerful and sometimes complicated role in deaf contexts. Using sound studies approaches and methodologies, then, could help to augment the ways in which sound figures into deaf culture–a subject that has received very little attention thus far. Collaborations between these seemingly contradictory areas of study have the potential to enliven and enrich each other in mutually beneficial ways. Sound studies and deaf studies have a lot to say to each other. They just need to start listening.

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Steph Ceraso is a 4th year Ph.D. student in English (Cultural/ Critical Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in rhetoric and composition. Her primary research areas include sound and listening, digital media, and affect. Ceraso is currently writing a dissertation that attempts to revise and expand conventional notions of listening, which tend to emphasize the ears while ignoring the rest of the body. She is most interested in understanding how more fully embodied modes of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Ceraso is also a 2011-12 HASTAC [Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory] Scholar and a DM@P[Digital Media at Pitt] Fellow. She regularly blogs for HASTAC.

‘Corn-ing’ the Suburbs on Halloween, a Sonic Trick and Treat

Dark Window, by Flickr User Richardzinho

It was a crisp Saturday night in late-October. I was probably seven or eight. My brother and I were sitting on the couch watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” for the zillionth time.

And then we heard it.

To our stunned ears, it seemed as though my parents’ bay window, situated directly behind us, had shattered to pieces. But, mysteriously, it was still there, in tact.

Our tiny nervous systems were not prepared for this sonic assault, especially because it didn’t make sense. We stared in disbelief at the window for a minute, waiting for it to spill its shards. When we got enough courage to get up and peer out the front door, we saw the lanky silhouettes of teenagers running away into the dark of the trees. Piles of dried out corn kernels were scattered all over the porch like empty shells.  We had been corned.

Cornfields at Night, by Flickr User Rasimu

“Corn-ing,” a longstanding Halloween tradition in the suburbs of western Pennsylvania, is a popular prank in which kids sneak up to houses after dark and throw pre-hardened corn kernels at their windows, producing a truly startling sound effect. Corn-ing’s treat lies in the sonic trick—corn is able to convincingly sound like something else entirely.   Thinking back on my experiences as both a victim of and participant in corn-ing, it occurs to me that this prank is sonic through and through—from listening for farmers in the corn fields before snatching husks from their crops, to locating one’s corn-ing partners in pitch black environments by the sound of the kernels bouncing rhythmically in their backpacks.

When early October rolled around each year, it was like an alarm went off in the heads of the kids that lived in my neighborhood. October meant it was time to procure ears of corn from the farms located on the outskirts of our Wonder-Years-ish suburb. In the days before we had our drivers’ licenses, this was an arduous task. We’d have to ride our bikes on the hilly back roads in mid-day (night time was too scary after we’d seen Children of the Corn), ditch them in the woods near the fields, and listen carefully for any signs of life in the corn—farmers, animals, blood-thirsty fundamentalist Christian children named Malachi, etc.

We couldn’t rely on our sight in these instances because the corn was so tall. We had to stop filling our backpacks every so often and listen for sounds of danger—for the rustles and crunches of stalks.

After our backpacks were filled to the brim, the preparation process began. The corn would sit for weeks in our garage, getting harder and harder. Once it became pebble-like in consistency, we’d shuck it back into our backpacks, listening to the pinging sound as it accumulated. On Friday afternoons, anxiously waiting for the sun to go down, we’d talk strategy. We decided that corning old people was out of the question. Even in our pseudo-delinquent state, we realized that sound had consequences—that spooking someone could give them a heart attack. So we mostly stuck to mean neighbors like old man Haybee, who was notorious for the unsightly cursive green “H” that was bolted to his chimney like a garish fast food sign. He never gave out candy to trick or treaters, so he was basically asking for it. Once a plan of attack was developed, it was time to suit up in all-black clothing and put on our packs. As soon as the streetlights came on, we were off.

My memories of these adolescent adventures are predominately sonic—the crunch of the fallen leaves, pounding hearts and nervous breathing, barely muffled laughter, and of course the sound of corn making contact with glass. Indeed, the success of the prank was measured in sound. The louder the sound the corn produced, the louder the aftermath tended to be. It was a true victory if dogs barked, or if people came out of their houses to yell. “You damn kids better run!” they would scream, sometimes only half seriously. And we did. We ran for our lives, despite the oppressive weight of the corn on our backs.

Click for the sound of sorn-ing: corn-ing

Dark Windows, Abandoned House in Toronto, ON by Flickr User static416

I wanted to capture the sounds of a real corn-ing experience to include here, but I quickly realized what an incredibly stupid idea that would be (what you heard, by the way, was the sound of me and my neighbor corning our own apartment building). As an almost 30-year-old Pittsburgher living in a fairly rough neighborhood, sneaking up to people’s houses at night in order to produce startling noises would most likely result in an encounter with police or violence of some kind. In the suburban environment of my adolescence, the sound of corn-ing was associated with a silly prank. Neighbors came to expect (and even get a kick out of) this Halloween tradition. In an urban environment in which the corn-ers are no longer in their teens, however, the sound of corn-ing would most almost certainly be interpreted as an aggressive or threatening act.

This just goes to show that different configurations of sound, spaces, and bodies (particularly raced and classed bodies) can result in vastly different understandings about what it means to share sound in a community. In Pittsburgh, I find myself constantly bombarded with the sounds of emergency and panic—police and ambulance sirens, firetrucks, helicopters. In my community’s soundscape, loud, startling noises are definitely not associated with fun and folly. Rather, they are a constant reminder of the looming danger that apparently surrounds me, as well as the incessant surveillance and policing of the city. This does not leave much room for sonic play.

This is not to say that there was no danger in corn-ing the burbs. For instance, this recent tragedy, in which a corn-er accidentally was hit by a car, happened in a suburb not far from the one where I grew up.  Back when I was pitching corn, my best friend Courtney was once tackled by a man who thought she was slashing the tires of his truck (she was really just hiding behind a tire with a fistful of corn). And my brother Matt and I often found ourselves taking cover in the neighbors’ shrubbery waiting for the town patrolman to finish his watch. But I’d imagine that these war stories would not even come close to the dangers of corn-ing in the city. It is clear that the effectiveness of corn-ing as a prank is contingent upon the specific time, season, location, and culture in which its sounds occur.

Perhaps the real trick of sound, then, is that the context of its sounding can completely transform its effects and affects. But if you can get the sounds in sync with the right context, well, then you’ve got yourself a real treat.

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Steph Ceraso is a 4th year Ph.D. student in English (Cultural/ Critical Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in rhetoric and composition. Her primary research areas include sound and listening, digital media, and affect. Ceraso is currently writing a dissertation that attempts to revise and expand conventional notions of listening, which tend to emphasize the ears while ignoring the rest of the body. She is most interested in understanding how more fully embodied modes of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Ceraso is also a 2011-12 HASTAC [Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory] Scholar and a DM@P [Digital Media at Pitt] Fellow. She regularly blogs for HASTAC.

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