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Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-language Radio

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World Listening Month3This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Inés Casillas prescribes, a wider understanding of the power and meaning of volume as material sensation as well as listening practice, particularly in communities marginalized by U.S. racial and ethnic hierarchies.  “Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” Casillas tells us, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”   –Editor-in-Chief JS

Chicana and Chicano friends across the southwest share different renditions of a similar childhood memory. The one where Mexican parents or grandparents crank up the rancheras -mournful, classic Mexican melodies – on an early Saturday morning or what seems to be an inappropriate, way-too-late weeknight. They reminisce about listening as children in wonderment to the familial, communal sing-along that seemed to instinctively take place among extended kin. That, or they tell of listening, cringing in silence, in fear that the non-Mexican neighbors will overhear the radio and spontaneous serenade; a telltale sign that their family is, indeed, Mexican. “As if,” shared Deborah Paredez in her account, “those few white neighbors somehow didn’t already know you were Mexican.”

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“Woman Doing a Mexican Grito” by Flickr User Nan Palmero

For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class, and even, according to Jennifer Stoever, illegality. To me, the most provocative detail in these recurring childhood stories rests more on the volume, often stationed on one of two settings – “loud” or “real loud.” Excessive, “loud accouterments,” according to Deborah R. Vargas, are heard and identified as unforgiving, racialized and queer forms of surplus; what she calls “lo sucio” (a vernacular for dirty or grimy). The high volume allows Mexicans and Chicanas/os to publically flaunt their brown identities under the increasingly watchful gaze of a post-9/11 state, during a record-deportation Obama era, and when Latinos have officially outnumbered whites in the Golden (now brown) state of California. Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.

These stories, strikingly similar, often point to the ranchera song-style, specifically, the talents of Vicente Fernández and his regal voice as the beloved malefactor. The timber in Fernández’s famed voice rouses (drunken) merriments of Mexico, with lyrical utterings about acrimonious, heteronormative loves and losses. The gritos or sentimental cries that accompany such songs are gendered, nostalgic stand-ins for an affect of displacement shared by both Mexican immigrants and Chicana/os. Simon O’Sullivan insists that, “you cannot read affects, you can only experience them.” I would add, “through sound” to stress the ways in which sound travels and emotionally anchor a listener’s body. The fact that so many Chicanas and Chicanos have these recollections and several (read: me) reproduce these loud practices with our own children says more about the continued racialized, brown experiences of Mexicans and Chicana/os in the U.S. than perhaps the prowess of rancheras themselves.

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Vicente Fernández Performing Live in 2010, Image by Flickr User Jennifer Cachola

In many ways, the workings of race, language and labor resonate through radio. I argue that the very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from “white collar” modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.

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Workers listen to the radio in the kitchen of Taqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs, CO, Image by Andrew Cullen, High County News

For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun. Despite the passivity in terms such as informal, invisible, and “under the table” to characterize a significant component of both U.S. and transnational economies, these recurrent and strong vocalizations of work and worksites makes audible the statistics of economist Lisa Catanzarite. She cites that recently immigrant Latino men constitute 40 to 71% of low-level service work such as “construction, agriculture, and manufacturing jobs, including waiters’ assistants, gardeners and groundskeepers, cooks, farm workers, and painters.” Not only do patrons and those passing by overhear radio at/near such worksites but radio also makes routine reference to labor and laborers. These “brown-collared” occupations coupled with the swift growth in Spanish and bilingual (Spanish-English) stations, have crafted a not-so-discrete, brown form of listening.

Arguably, it’s difficult to not hear the growth of Spanish-language radio as heavy metal, oldies, and jazz radio dials have surprised English-dominant listeners by switching to banda, norteños, and morning chatter in Spanish. In 1980 the Federal Communications Commission identified sixty-seven Spanish-oriented radio stations on the air. The 2010 figures list over 1300 radio stations broadcasting exclusively in Spanish. Proving all too well that those media pundits and scholars championing the digital era do not tune into broadcast Spanish-language radio.

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“We espeekinglish tu!!!” Los Angeles, 2007

Spanish-language radio stations openly cater to a working-class and immigrant-minded listenership by advertising their call numbers and radio personalities at public transit stops. Latinos, loyal listeners of Spanish-language radio, are more likely to ride a bus or subway than to drive in a carpool lane to get to work. As an acoustic ally, these broadcasts not only assume listeners are a mix of undocumented persons, legal residents, and from mixed-status families, but radio hosts and radio programs openly rally in solidarity of their listeners’ civil rights, a provocative feat, given the recurrent changes in immigration politics. In fact, promotional billboards for radio stations often double as political statements. This one, for instance, featured Univisión’s then top rated morning host. The slogan symbolically pokes fun at unfriendly English-only attitudes and keenly reminds drivers that the United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.

Sounds of Belonging (NYU Press, 2014)

Dolores Inés Casillas’s Sounds of Belonging (NYU Press, 2014)

The portable and inexpensive cost of radio sets makes it possible for Latinos to tug their sets to work with them. Indeed, a recent listening report verified that the average Hispanic radio listener makes less than $35,000 a year and tunes in as early as 4am; indicative of graveyard, swing shifts and/or early treks to work. Closely aligned with my own assumptions about listening, Jose Anguiano’s doctoral study includes an insightful chapter on the listening preferences of custodial workers during late night shifts; in particular, how workers decided on where to place radio sets to optimize the acoustic sound of empty building spaces.

Yet, a troubling National Public Radio (NPR) segment devoted to the difficulty of finding a simple radio set bared the distinct classed uses of radio and radio listening. Producers visited high-end specialty stores in search of an AM/FM radio. The program broadcasted their collective laments at finding one radio set at their fifth store. Of course, their pursuit would have ended much earlier if they had visited a local swap meet, a K-Mart, or asked any of said laborers above where they had purchased their radio set. During my own research for Sounds of Belonging, twenty-seven of the thirty-three immigrant focus group participants interviewed indicated that a radio set was their first media purchase in the U.S.

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Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm.  Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound

Of course, such lucrative opportunities to woo radio listeners are not lost on corporate media. Latino listeners (whether they identify as Spanish-dominant or not) tune in to radio an average of three hours a week more than the “general” (white) U.S. radio listener, with an impressive 13.5 percent of all U.S. radio now broadcasting in Spanish. Univisión, a name long associated with Spanish-language television, now reigns as the empire of radio, owning the most Spanish-language radio stations in the United States.

Although tabulated figures showcase the popularity of left-leaning political broadcasts on Spanish-language commercial radio, Mari Castañeda and Monica de la Torre remind us of the significance and efficacy of community-based, Low Power FM radio for rural, Spanish-dominant Latino communities. Without the privilege of corporate sponsors such as  McDonalds, or Kohls, small and fiercely independent, community-based bilingual and Spanish-language radio still thrives in farmlands across the U.S.

Sound, especially at high volume, daringly seeps and trespasses across public, racial boundaries. The policing of sound, according to Derek Vaillant, beginning in the nineteenth century were orchestrated civic attempts to eliminate unsightly and “noisy” cries from poor, ethnic immigrant street vendors peddling their goods. Another instance, during World War II, foreign language broadcasts were outlawed out of monolingual American fears that enemies were communicating via radio. City transits often post rules asking that passengers use audio/video equipment only with headphones. Public etiquette about appropriate levels of volume enforced through noise ordinances and ways of listening (privately) speak to larger issues about race, labor, and class. Not only do these public campaigns and transit rules privilege the dominant, western ear but it also, according to Jennifer Stoever, focuses on white sensory orientations of noise which inherently positions those most marginalized as the “noise makers.”

Lowrider Trike with Sound System, Image by George Garcia

Lowrider Trike with Sound System, Image by George Garcia

For generations, Chicana/o and Mexican listeners have gravitated to radio for far more than the musical sounds of homelands imagined or left behind. Raising the volume on Spanish-language radio sends neighbors a racialized sign of “Mexican-ness” often heard as unruly, “noisy,” and perhaps worse, unassimilated. High volume from the private spaces of homes and cars disrupts the quiet, public acceptance of ear buds while also providing sheer, public glee. An audible, unabashed reminder of other forms of “lo sucio” – high credit card debt, more than 2.2 children, vegetable gardens in front yards, too-much-cologne or Virgin de Guadalupe adornments – and the brown refusal to tone, much less, to turn it down.

*Inspired by my six year old’s attempts to grito along with “Volver, Volver.”

Featured Image: Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm.  Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound

Dolores Inés Casillas is an associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy, was published in Fall 2014 by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series. 

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Speaking ‘Mexican’ and the use of ‘Mock Spanish’ in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)“–Dolores Inés Casillas 

Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging” –Nancy Morales

Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent“–reina alejandra prado saldivar

Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms“–Monica De La Torre

“A Sinister Resonance”: Joseph Conrad’s Malay Ear and Auditory Cultural Studies

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Weird Tales CoverWelcome to the first part of Sonic Shadows, a new SO! series featuring essays drawn from a recent symposium on the question “what does it mean to have a voice” held last April at The New School, and featuring organizers Dominic Pettman, Pooja Rangan and Julie Beth Napolin, as well as invitees Mara Mills (NYU), Gustavus Stadler (Haverford), Rey Chow (Duke), and James Steintrager (UC Irvine). I am happy to serve as Guest Editor, bringing some work developed for, during and after that event, beginning with my own article below.

Participants in “Sonic Shadows” focused on the voice’s shadowy or coded qualities as it stands on the border of the animal, human, and machine. Our motivating question was one shared by literary studies (authorship, the voice of writing, narration), technology studies (recording, storing, and transmitting voices), and media studies, particularly documentary studies (giving voice and objectivity). This question of having a voice, among the oldest questions of philosophy and literature, is also at the intersection of musicality, ontology, epistemology, phenomenology, psychoanalysis and history. Our discussions aimed to carve out a new trajectory for voice studies today, and in this series for Sounding Out! our authors will begin to lay out where that trajectory might lead.

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

As readers of this blog are well aware, historically, sound has been the “other” to more ensconced objects of music and voice. Brian Kane’s Sound Unseen has recently urged for an auditory cultural studies that might move us away from a reified category of sound: “Although it seems a truism to even say it, music studies is a species of sound studies and auditory culture” (226). By this same token, “voice” does not merely become “sound” at its limit, when words fray or dissolve, but rather begins that way. More importantly, auditory cultural studies would (and does) revolve around modes of listening, which are necessarily grounded in questions—and the always open question—of difference and the social. With that in mind, this article argues for the central role of the novel—and the voice in and of the novel—in an auditory cultural studies.

Poetry has enjoyed a longstanding dialogue around sonorousness, while the novel seems more immune to questions of the auditory. In “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin called the novel “the birthplace of the solitary individual,” meaning that writing and reading happen in silence, without a listening other. We don’t “listen” to the novel in the same way we might listen to poetry, which often demands that we read it aloud. But if the novel is, in its most basic sense, a combination of description and dialogue, then the human speaking voice—and how to represent it—is central to its definition, as well as how to represent sounds in the world. William Faulkner describes “the Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.” of an adze in As I Lay Dying, and novelists like Zora Neale Hurston wrote in an “eye-dialect” that would try to approximate for the eye the sounds of African American vernacular voice, as did Charles Dickens with English vernacular—each of these practices tell us about the unstable relationship between writing and listening. The novel has always been haunted by this gap, and it tells us important things about what we think it means to communicate across distance.

“2015-03-18 adrift” by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0

The modernist novel in particular is a fecund territory for modes of listening, and such works as Mark Goble’s Beautiful Circuits have shown to what extent auditory practices shaped by technology had conditioned writing practices and its imaginary in the long 20th century. But the question of “having a voice,” still lingers, even after Friedrich Kittler has shown to what extent the writer felt robbed of and haunted by voice in the wake of the invention of the gramophone in the late 19th century. Was the experience of voice in “modernity” only its disembodiment? And doesn’t the emphasis upon disembodiment obscure the place of the body in the signifying social practices of auditory culture? Is reading a wholly disembodied or silent experience?

In a recent essay on Joseph Conrad, I addressed these questions, pointing out that the history of the novel, as a “silent” genre, feels quite different if we begin with Conrad’s physical voice as mediated by his vexed relationship to the English language. He had spent his childhood in exile in Russia and his adult life as a merchant marine, steeped in colonial locations. Conrad would only ever write fiction in English, his third language after Polish and French, and he learned English by overhearing it aboard ships, never shedding a foreign accent he once described as “gibberish.” His sentiment in a letter to confidant, “l’ Anglais m’est toujours une langue etrangère,” registers a double displacement from a home in written and spoken language.

Conrad once wrote that the “power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.” Often in his novels, characters hear when they cannot see, and “action,” is reduced to characters’ listening to distant sounds—like the drumming that comes from the jungle in Heart of Darkness. Dialogue is rarely a simple matter of transcribing words on the page. He tried to represent the fact that people often mishear each other or stutter and shout in the midst of noise—those representations changed what was possible for “dialogue” in the process. I’m reminded here of how in several of Jean Luc Godard’s films, viewers can’t hear what characters are saying because the noise in a café is too loud, or a train passes by at a crucial moment. These issues of communication in the novel are especially important for auditory cultural studies to ponder—the inner voice of writing and reading, the voice that is supposed to make the most immediate sense to a person, is suddenly hijacked by sounds.

“Joseph Conrad” by Flickr user Dan Strange, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Conrad would never speak English without a sense of shame, his own wife often couldn’t understand him, and his prose is marked by oddities that reveal thinking in one language while writing in another. In The Secret Agent, Steven G. Kellman briefly notes, Conrad writes the phrase “pulled up violently the venetian blind,” an error in word order that carries what Kellman calls “the traces of incomplete translingualism” (11). I’m also thinking of the unidiomatic word “moonshine” in the opening paragraphs of Heart of Darkness. Moments like this are important because they betray the extent to which Conrad was “passing” in his voice as an English writer.

Heart of Darkness is nothing if not a series of voices and sounds. It begins with an English merchant ship waiting for the turn of the tide and to dock in London. To pass the time, Marlow, a sailor aboard ship, tells an extended story of a previous journey along the Congo River (as reported by Marlow’s anonymous listener in the present). This story is rife with misheard voices and distant sounds. Chinua Achebe seminally attacked Conrad’s racism in his representation of African people as being without voice, as only making noise and speaking broken English. But this reading is complicated by Conrad’s own struggle with English. We have to hear “behind” or “through” his claim to speaking as an Englishman via the voice of Marlow. Conrad also crafted scenes were Englishmen have to confront being baffled by difference—they have to sit and listen, and confess they don’t understand the meanings of sounds.

The development of Marlow, Conrad’s recurring English avatar, was tied up in the desire for an idealized English voice. His relationship to English continually mediated his ambivalent feelings about the act of writing, his place in English literary society, and what it meant to speak—physically and symbolically—as a naturalized citizen. These ambivalences, I describe, all collide in the moment of Conrad’s first encounter with the x-ray and the phonograph in 1898 when he will discover that “all matter” is simply waves and vibrations. Though Conrad is most remembered for writing that the task of the novel is “to make you see”, auditory cultural studies would do well to remember that with Heart of Darkness, Conrad felt he had struck upon a novel with “a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear long after the last note had been struck.”

“Heart of darkness” by Flickr user Egui, CC BY-NC 2.0

Heart of Darkness is preoccupied with what I call the “vibrational monad,” as a theory of the continuity of all things and actions. Vibration—as action at a distance—allowed Conrad to imagine the novel as a material force overcoming of national and linguistic difference. As a sound-effect that reached others without speech, vibration for Conrad dissolved the difficulties of embodied communication. The drumming of the Congo is one such resonance, but so are moments like “moonshine.” These resonances remain “sinister,” though, because communication is not absolute or guaranteed. Conrad also wanted his readers to experience an emotional pall of the horrors of colonialism, communicated best not in words or “sense” but by the way obscure sounds and nonsense linger and haunt the reader’s inner ear after putting down the novel.

In my essay, I do not distinguish greatly between vibration and resonance in their material differences. In Conrad’s imaginary these forces are intertwined, and that intertwining—in the nature of the literary in its turn of phrases—marks a place for literature in auditory cultural studies. It is difficult to distinguish these tropes in his writing partly because they pose an emotional and physical tie; both link body to body. Historically, electronic technologies of vibration involve a colonizing impulse to conquer space and time. But in Conrad, vibration remains uncertain and ambiguous in that it often reverses its course to become its opposite and separate bodies as a means of distance and difference.

In his early fictions, vibration and resonance register translingual fault lines, reminding us that Conrad’s acquisition of voice was an embodied process, an uneven and ongoing one. Conrad begins his first novel Almayer’s Folly with a vocal fragment, a shout in two languages, neither of them English. These two words would have appeared strange and completely unfamiliar to his readers in England: “Kaspar, makan!” As we only later learn, this unidentified shout to Kaspar Almayer, a Dutch trader, has been issued by his Sulu wife who calls him to dinner.

“Joseph Conrad drawing and books” by Flickr user Ben Sutherland, CC BY 2.0

What does Conrad’s Malay voice mean for the definition of Anglophone modernism (from James Joyce to Jean Rhys) and what “other” voices and sounds define it from within? It is significant that Conrad’s 1895 romance does not begin with any description of characters or even the world. In this Victorian moment, a reader would expect fiction to begin with some sort of utterance in close proximity to authorial speech, as a voice-over (in the first or third person) that overlays the world of the novel. This voice tells us who we are about to meet and where, grants access. This shout is a puzzling beginning for a writer who would worry so much about reaching his readers. We—readers in English—don’t know what this voice is saying. No reader knows where this voice is coming from, who is shouting, and where. It won’t be translated for several pages, and then only indirectly. Again, Conrad hijacks the inner voice of reading to trouble English self-certainty.

That reminds me of the critique of voice-over and translation in the writings and films of Trinh T. Minh-ha, who often forces her viewers to confront languages they cannot understand and to sit with that non-understanding. Conrad gives up that authorial impulse; he drops its armature to become another voice—of a woman and colonized subject captured and brokered—as the opening gesture of his fiction. He speaks in her voice—rather than for her—and lets it take over what should be the first, authorial utterance. The shout carries an unspoken agony of colonization. She was, we later learn, kidnapped by Captain Lingard in the seizure of her village, and while he will call her “daughter,” she must endure his nightly visits, only to be passed to Almayer along with the failed promise of material wealth. His “folly” is inherent to the colonial rage for identity. This first authorial utterance is marred by the audible specter of sexual violence in colonialism.

What does this specter mean for the place of the novel in auditory cultural studies? Conrad destabilizes the white reader’s claim to “encountering” a world at a distance through the inner voice, a voice that is supposedly spontaneous, close and natural. The novel is also a technology of voices, but in this case, rather than bringing the other close, these vocal fragments mark an important place for distance. Conrad wrote Almayer’s Folly during his last journey as a merchant marine. Remarkably, one of few drafts of a letter home from that trip in Polish survives on a verso page of the manuscript. That material manuscript is too a space of difference—voices within voices, languages within languages, voices recorded but also obscured. The “sinister resonance” is one name for this founding disparity in the novel as an act of communication.

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

Featured image: “Joseph Conrad” by Flickr user Phoca2004, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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This Is How You Listen: Reading Critically Junot Díaz’s Audiobook — Liana M. Silva

How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent — Gayle Wald

On Whiteness and Sound Studies

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World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901″ via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.

 

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts — Christina Sharpe

Listening to the Border: “‘2487′: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

Sounding Out! Podcast #44: Retail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce

Ambient interiors in a typical mall. Nicholas Eckhart CC BY.

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What is the ambient sound of commerce? Equally reviled and revered, the programmed soundscapes of retail space combine wonderful serendipity with quotidian blandness. This podcast examines field recordings from luxury megastores, suburban fast food joints, and everything in between. As it turns out, the corporate ambience of chain-store retail isn’t so far away from the high-brow ambitions of ambient music. Ambience is whatever surrounds us, and it’s embroiled within the same kinds of aesthetic, political, and economic struggles that have been recognized in architecture for centuries.

While a long line of thinkers have identified the links between retail and modernity, surprisingly few have addressed the phenomena in auditory terms. Following up on Jonathan Sterne’s 1997 inquiry regarding environmental music in the Mall of America, this podcast examines new developments in ambient sound that have accompanied the rise of e-commerce and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores. Segmentation of markets, nostalgia for the past, and the early history of recording are all addressed, as we take a listening trip through consumer culture.

The podcast presents highlights from field recordings from retail stores, accompanied by voice-over narration. Field recordings were captured with a Zoom H4n handy recorder, at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ, Dover Street Market New York, Parsonage Road Target in Edison, NJ, Wal-Mart Route 27 in Edison, NJ, and Dunkin Donuts Route 27 in Edison, NJ. Also includes excerpts from Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978) and Disconscious’ “Hologram Plaza” (2013).

James Hodges is a PhD student in media studies at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the relationship between promotional culture and media preservation. James is the cofounder of a media archaeology working group at Rutgers, and he runs a small cassette label for fun.

Featured image by Nicholas Eckhart @Flickr CC BY.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out! Podcast #6: Spaces of Listening / The Record Shop – Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #18: Listening to the Tuned City Brussels , Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles – Jennifer Stoever

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