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Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear

Olin-Tonatiuh-and-Cristal-Gonzalez-in-Tamales-De-Puerco.-Photo-by-Ed-Krieger.

World Listening Month3This is the fourth and final 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 Trevor Boffone prescribes, a much wider and more corporeal understanding of the practice that goes beyond an emphasis on the ear and even on sound itself.   –Editor-in-Chief JS

As Kent, a Deaf man, stands on stage in Tamales de Puerco, signing his story of struggling and growing up in a hearing family, the only aural sounds in the theater come from the audience: the sounds of crying. Performed in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL), Tamales offers a glimpse into the seldom seen realities of life as a single mother to a Deaf child as it intersects with Latinidad. The play presents the story of Norma, a young mother who confronts her abusive husband and challenges a country that rejects and oppresses her as an undocumented immigrant. She overcomes the hardships of being Latina, undocumented, and having a Deaf child (Mauricio) without any support from her husband, her mother, and local and state institutions. Ultimately, Norma must negotiate cultural citizenship and notions of belonging to the Deaf Latin@ community so that her son can have more opportunities. The play uses—and calls attention to—silence as an essential building block in the process of constructing, remixing, and performing the complexities of Latin@ identity.

Third Ear Image 2 - TdP - Norma and Tana

Listening to the silences in Latin@ theatre performance offers crucial insight into how the Latin@ population and Latinidad fit into the fabric of the United States in the 21st Century, as Marci R. McMahon notes in “Soundscapes of Narco Silence.” In Tamales, the staging of Deafness creates a particular kind of silence that promotes new listening strategies. What I find most compelling is how Deafness on stage–and the particular silences Deafness can create–opens up a space for what Steph Ceraso calls multimodal listening,” listening as a full-bodied event not solely linked to the ears, but rather connected to “bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics.” Calling attention to the body as it does, the silences in the play give weight to Kent’s story and affects the viewer beyond the limits of voiced acting by encouraging spectators to concentrate on the actors’ physical emotions and how actors’ bodies work to transmit messages without verbal cues. I argue Tamales promotes multimodal listening by forcing spectators to use their “Third Ear”—a mode of listening across domains of silence, sound, and the moving body—as a device to understand a seemingly silent world.

To do this, I engage with the playscript and recordings of the 2013 production of Mercedes Floresislas’s Tamales de Puerco at CASA 0101 Theater under Edward Padilla’s direction. While Floresislas’s script raised many complex issues surrounding the Deaf Latin@ community, Padilla’s staging focused on the intersections of Deafness and Latinidad by foregrounding the use of silence in the production. [Note: I use the capitalized versions of Deaf and Deafness. A standard dictionary definition of “deaf” represents one who is partially or unable to hear (deaf and hearing impaired are essentially interchangeable). Deaf with a capital D, however, refers to the community that self-identifies as belonging to the Deaf culture. Deafness, therefore, is a sign of health and prognosis of well-being among sign language dependent hearing-impaired people. Likewise, hearing versus Hearing represents a similar biological/cultural binary.]

In Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater, one of the few studies to devote critical attention to Deaf theater as it relates to multicultural experience and identity, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren introduces the “Third Ear,” a useful term that facilitates focusing one’s attention on the performative forms of expression. Blending sensory, spatial, and visual elements generates a Third Ear that acts as a “Deaf-gain,” a hybrid mode of hearing and coming to know the world. When specific senses are lost, the mind becomes dynamic in such a way that continues to allow affected individuals to actively engage with their surroundings, with their community. Deaf people, therefore, do not lack a vital sense, but rather they gain a new sense—one typically inaccessible to hearing individuals– that enables them to successfully navigate their surroundings. Kochhar-Lindgren’s work focuses attention on the “sense” of performance and the different movements that work together to form speech sensed by the “Third Ear.” For audience members, learning to perceive the mixing of forms together as communication is fundamental to understanding the messages presented on stage; inevitably, the Third Ear promotes auditory silence yet it establishes that a lack of sound does not necessarily correspond with a lack of understanding. By removing all sound, silence gains power.

Third Ear Image 1 - TdP Poster Art (1)

The evocation of the Third Ear separates Tamales from the majority of Latin@ theater productions grounded in aural languages such as English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Deafness is seldom represented onstage in any type of theater, aside from revivals of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, more contemporary works such as Suzan Zeder’s Ware Trilogy and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and the work of Deaf West Theatre in Hollywood, whose most recent production, Spring Awakening received rave reviews and will move Broadway in September 2015. The work of Deaf West has been of particular interest to Sound Studies scholars for its unique contributions to the American Theatre. In Cara Cardinale’s 2012 SO! post, she discusses Deaf West’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which the roles were reversed. The production’s interpreters were for the hearing audience and, thus, sign language took center stage. Yet, all of these more well-known works focus on Anglo experiences, neglecting the specific intersectional challenges that Deaf people of color face such as limited access to state-funded resources such as counseling services, educational inequality and the achievement gap, not to mention that the majority of Deaf Latin@s do not have parents who can sign with them (re: effectively communicate).

The Third Ear, as evoked in Tamales, seems especially suited for representing Latin@ Deafness onstage and evoking a concomitant visceral understanding in audiences. Floresislas’s writing and Padilla’s direction work together to strategically allow audience members to develop a Third Ear at key moments in the play, enabling them to fill silences they might have otherwise perceived as gaps. Entering Tamales’ silent world not only compels hearing audiences to recognize their supposed privilege, but pushes toward a deeper understanding of the relativity of hearing-as-privilege. In a Deaf world, hearing is not a privilege, but rather one of many ways to come to know the world. In this regard, Tamales reiterates Liana Silva’s argument that “deafness complicates what it means to listen” by calling attention to the many non-auditory signals that are vital to the act.

2B63E42B-FE77-6FF9-25FDAD4EE2D67726In addition, Tamales deliberately fosters moments of uncomfortable silences that are one of the production’s strengths. For example, silence plays a key role in an early scene in which Norma decides to leave her abusive husband, Reynaldo. In this violent episode–either by a deafening blow or disassociation–everything in her world goes silent. While Reynaldo yells at her and throws things around the house, his voice fades out. However, as Norma sits in silence, she becomes better able to navigate her abusive marriage. Norma hears the silence. Her hypervigilance increases her ability to identify potential threat(s) and, ultimately, she takes her son and flees from the situation. While Norma taps into her Third Ear on stage, the audience also enters a silent world in which they must seek alternative methods to actively engage with the production. By “losing” their hearing along with Norma, the audience must pay a different kind of attention to her to gain an understanding of the scene.

Along with recognizing certain hearing privileges, listening with the Third Ear both connects and separates the audience. For instance, in the scene in which Norma attends an AA meeting for Deaf people, Padilla’s direction activates the Third Ear by removing sound from the stage. In the original playscript, Floresislas wanted Kent’s monologue to include a voice-over, but during rehearsals, Padilla saw the potential to foreground the silence in this scene (and throughout the piece, as well); his direction transformed the staging from an aural scene to a silent one. Listening with the Third Ear enables the audience to blend sensory and visual hearing in order to understand the emotional depth of the action transpiring on stage. As Kent stands in silence, signing his story about the difficulties of connecting with his hearing father, many in the audience were audibly moved. During Kent’s monologue, the actor remained silent while supertitles revealed his speech:

Yesterday, my father had a heart attack and I got called to his bedside at the hospital. I had not seen him for almost 15 years! I had never had a conversation with my father; yes, he was hearing and I was his only deaf child. (…) I always believed by dad hated me; nothing I did was ever good enough. He was always watching me and looking angry for everything I ever did or asked. I actually wished he’d ignore me like the rest of the family! (15)

Third Ear Image 3 - TdP - Kent (Dickie Hearts)

Particularly gripping, this scene acts as a crucial building block in the necessity of creating opportunities for her son that drives Norma’s story forward, not to mention that it calls attention to the fact that reading isn’t necessarily a silent act. Kent’s story reveals much to a hearing audience who may be unfamiliar with the Deaf Latin@ community. Kent’s experience is typical of Deaf Latin@s, only 20% of whom have parents that can sign. It compels an understanding of the reasons why Norma learns ASL and pushes for a better life for her son. She does not want him to be in the same position that Kent finds himself in. And, she does not want to have the regret of having never learned to communicate with him. Kent continues:

Yesterday, he looked frail; he was paralyzed on one side. When he saw me, he moved his hand like this (brushes his left hand up the center of his chest then points at). At first, I didn’t understand what he was doing. But when he did it again, I understood. He said, “I’m proud of you.” Then he signed “I love you.” (…) My niece told me he had been learning ASL for the last 3 months because he wanted to tell me how sorry he was for not being able to talk to me. My dad didn’t hate me; he hated himself for not being able to talk to me! (…) But yesterday, I also had my first and last conversation with my dad he signed for me! That…makes me feel very proud! (15-16)

As Kent stands in silence, his emotional journey is given life through his hands and body. Interestingly, the silences enacted onstage by Tamales actually create sound, amplifying the sobbing that emanates from the audience in both its auditory and visual manifestations. The way in which silence allows the audiences’ sonic reactions to become part of the play itself suggests that how—and why–the audience responds may actually be more important than the performance itself. How much are the sobs about the heartbreaking nature of Kent’s story and how much of it is recognizing one’s own privileges? How much of it is the audience connecting with the story? How much of it is about seeing themselves represented? And how does silence amplify “listening” to Kent’s story?

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While not exhaustive, my reading of Tamales widens the conversation about the intricacies of Deaf Latin@ performance. The 2013 production of Tamales best hints at the possibilities of Latin@ performance in Boyle Heights and how community-based theater companies such as CASA 0101 can work to provide more access to Deaf people, thus forging both an inclusive community and theater company. More plays featuring Deaf characters, incorporating Deaf actors, and Deaf dramatists are needed, something Floresislas is already exploring. Still, much research remains as to how Deaf Latinidad is heard and how this identity fits into a performance framework. Through multimodal listening, Tamales urges spectators to leave the theater considering how they may or may not alter their actions to better benefit underprivileged and underrepresented communities such as the Latin@ Deaf community. Quite frankly, Tamales opens the “eyes and ears” of audiences. Now is the time to listen to Deaf Latinidad. What will we choose to hear in the silence?

Still Images from Tamales de Puerco, permission courtesy of CASA 0101 Theatre. Featured Image: Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in “Tamales De Puerco.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, dramaturge, and producer. He is a co-founder of Amaranto Productions and a member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee. Trevor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. His dissertation, Performing Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López and Theater for Social Change in Boyle Heights, is a study of theater and performance in East Los Angeles, focusing primarily on Josefina López’s role as a playwright, mentor, and community leader. He has published and presented original research on Chicana Feminist Teatro, the body in performance, Deaf Latinidad, Queer Latinidad, as well as the theater of Adelina Anthony, Nilo Cruz, Virginia Grise, Josefina López, Cherríe Moraga, Monica Palacios, and Carmen Peláez. Trevor recently served as a Research Fellow at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin for his project Bridging Women in Mexican-American Theater from Villalongín to Tafolla (1848-2014).

 

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. 

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

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

The Screech Within Speech

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Weird Tales CoverWelcome back to SO!‘s Sonic Shadows series, which focuses on what it means to “have a voice.” In the first post in the series, I considered the role of the novel in sound studies, and how, paradoxically, this led us back to the embodied voice of the writer. In Joseph Conrad’s prose, traces of accent and translingualism shape the sonic space of difference, but also reframe the novel as a social, yet ambiguous act of communication.

This week, I’m happy to welcome Dominic Pettman, who picks up the question of the embodied human voice as it brushes up against the animal in what he calls the “voice of the world.” Next week, the series will conclude with uncanny mechanical sounds of early recording that trouble the voice of the human from within.

— Julie Beth Napolin, Guest Editor

This is the sound of “the loneliest whale in the world.”

Scientists have tracked this mournful creature for several years, intrigued by the melancholy songs, which go unanswered. The call of this singular cetacean, an Internet cult figure of unidentified species, registers at the unusual frequency of 52hz, much higher than that of all other types of whale.

These days, in general, whales have been forced into relatively tiny sonic boxes because of the din created by ship engines and various audio probings of the marine environment by military and industry alike. As bio-acoustician Christopher Clark, suggests, this assault and subsequent diminishment of the whale’s soundscape must be extremely traumatic for the animal, whose overall umwelt has shrunk from large swathes of the watery planet to barely a mile or so in any given direction. The noisier the ocean becomes the lonelier whales are likely to become.

“anim1083″ by Flickr user NOAA Photo Library, CC BY 2.0

The 52hz whale is a bit like an outsider artist, offering personalized songs to the sub-aquatic world, only to be snubbed by the more “vocal” members of whale community. Cetaceans could arguably be considered the first instance of global communication, many millions of years ago, since their calls could travel astonishing distances – up to 500 miles under water. Songs of the humpback, for instance, can “sweep across the Pacific in just a few years,” as biologists from the University of Queensland explain. “In any given year, all the males in a population sing the same song, but the songs change from year to year. The changes are more than incremental; they represent whole new repertoires.”

Can we really, however, speak of singing in such cases? Many would argue that simply using the organ of vocalization does not equate to singing in that it lacks the element of self-reflection necessary for true expression; for artistry. Others have conversely argued that humans were likely taught to sing by other creatures, especially the birds. These perspectives on the question of the interspecies voice have a long and complex history, crisscrossing epochs, as well as those divergent orientations to the natural world crudely divided into “East” and “West.” In this post, I focus on what it means to try to hear the animal beyond or through human terms, to explore the question of who or what can rightly claim to have a voice – is it a property or capacity that belongs to a subject, even a nonhuman subject? Might we consider voice to include “expression” of the elements themselves? Might the world itself, whatever such a grand phrase might denote, have a vox mundi – a voice of the planet?

“Angry” by Pixabay user PublicDomainPictures, public domain

Such questions deserve long and careful consideration, [and SO! has housed a series of reflections on acoustic ecology and a singing planet.] But in this brief context, I focus on the historically contested existence of a creaturely voice – one which describes a plurality of vocal expressions, distributed among those species blessed with the capacity to make sounds with their bodies. As Tobias Menely explains in a wonderful new book, the creaturely voice, like the human one, forms the vector of sympathy; and is thus suspended between the individual producing the sound, and the one listening to it. Through “the voice of nature” we understand our essential “creaturely entanglement” with other animals. This perspective pushes Mladen Dolar’s psychoanalytic theory that voice ties self to other to include the nonhuman experience of the animal realm.

Menely argues for a condition of social identity in “creaturely voice,” which is a way of testing the world, and one’s location, role, and value in it. In other words, monkeys, birds, whales, and so on, test their own existence when they emit non-symbolic equivalents of, “I’m here.” “Where are you?” “Are you really there?” “Who are you?” “Marco.” “Polo.” These are the unspoken – and yet at least partially communicated – messages woven into the ever-vanishing, yet always returning, medium of the voice.

Take, for instance, the parrot or cockatoo. We humans have been fascinated by these birds, largely by virtue of their perceived organic capacity to “record” our own voices, and throw these back at us, like trickster ventriloquists, long before the invention of the phonograph. Certainly, this can create an uncanny effect in the human listener: hearing our own voice echoed back from the larynx of a creature so different from ourselves – a creature that may or may not have its own mind or soul. Historically speaking, many people who had their figurative feathers ruffled by the impertinence of parrots deflected the discomfort they felt, upon hearing their own words screeched back at them.

This pet parrot, who had clearly been in the room when its owner was watching X-rated material, recently became famous. The instant mirth, and/or discomfort, that this clip produces is a function of hearing ourselves, as humans, echoed back by an animal. Our words are “rebroadcast” back to us by an entity that has no sense of irony or decorum. It is literally obscene. It is as if the world were engaged in objective parody of the planet’s most arrogant animal: revealing one of our most sacred activities (“making love”) to be little more than a kind of crude ventriloquial trick. This parrot is not deliberately lampooning us, yet, the refrain created by the bird’s imitative tendencies means that we are lampooned nevertheless.

Another famous pet cockatoo was given to a new couple after a bitter divorce obliged it to find a new home. The details of the break-up remain obscure to the second owners. However, this (traumatized?) cockatoo re-enacts the tone, pitch, and vehemence of the arguments that it was obliged to witness in its previous life. While most of the “words” the cockatoo screeches are not clear enough to be translated, the emotions that initially launched them are obvious to all within hearing distance. The bird even bobs its head, and spreads its wings, in imitation of the angry body language of a wife scorned, spurned, or otherwise so aggrieved that she can only incessantly shriek at the man who made her so miserable. Whose voice is this, then?

Parrots are like children, some might claim, squawking back syllables they will never comprehend. One might as well yell into a cave, and be astonished that the words return as a consequence of physics. Bird songs, according to such a concept, create what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “a refrain,” which in turn generates a territory through the act of sonically diagramming it. This operation is not limited to the natural world, however, since we may say the same about television sets or saxophones.

Consider how children, or lovers, playfully imitate the speech of the other. In doing so, they assert their own identity, while also putting such an identity under erasure. Many animals (including humans) may thus be creatures who continue to flesh themselves out in(to) this territory. But instead of the animal echoing back the human, what about the reverse? As a final example, consider one famous instance of simulated human suffering, “devolving” into a creaturely register; namely, the old literature professor, Dr. Immanuel Rath, who experiences a nervous breakdown when he succumbs to intense jealousy and a broken heart, at the climax of Josef von Sternberg’s classic film, The Blue Angel (1930).

Just as the full weight of his rejection, at the hands of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is being registered in his psyche, the professor – who has quit teaching to follow his beloved in the cabaret world – is ushered out onto the theatrical stage, dressed as a clown. The audience waits in skeptical anticipation of an amusing performance, but the haunted ex-professor can only unleash a torrent of repressed anguish at his broken heart, and his humiliation at the hands of the vulgar mob. The horrible sound he releases, silencing the crowd, is part spurned lover, part rooster, and wholly abject. The professor seems to lose almost all his humanity, which was once verifiable in his composed and authoritative teaching voice, but is now some kind of demonic bird, screeching in misery, fury, and defeat. As this seemingly mindless force of vengeance tries to strangle his romantic obsession backstage, and as he continues to struggle against those who restrain him, the ex-professor has become creaturely: a supposedly subhuman status signified more by his inhuman voice than by anything else.

And yet, as we have seen, there is no simple hierarchy here, where the human occasionally – in times of great distress – finds themselves, by this logic, reduced to being “an animal.” We might call this the vox mundi – the voice of the world—in which, like the shadowy depths of the ocean, there is a swath of sound shared by human and animal. The creaturely voice can be sweet, like the nightingale. Or it can be harsh, like the traumatized cockatoo or the green-eyed professor-clown. There is an intimate link between the voices of animals and those of humans, which cannot be reduced to a concept like “communication,” but which nevertheless impacts and influences all those in hearing distance.

“Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christpher Michel, CC BY 2.0

That is, unless one happens to be a whale, singing at 52hz. In which case, we are likely to keep singing into the inky darkness, without any reply.

Dominic Pettman is Chair of Liberal Studies, New School for Social Research, and Professor of Culture & Media, Eugene Lang College. He is the author of several books, including Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zero books), and the forthcoming Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media (Polity).

Featured image: “Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0

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Sounding Out! Podcast #42: Listening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’

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This week, Sounding Out! is happy to share a podcast on nostalgia, performance, and sound. Please join host, Eleanor Russell (Northwestern University), as she guides us through through the popular sounds of the 1980s and compares her sonically-mediated memories to the lived perspectives of her co-hosts André Callot (Independent Artist) and Eric Wenzel (Roosevelt University). How do we remember urban space through sonic media, and is their a potential to queer our memories of the decade by revisiting our shared media ouvré? No matter where you stand on the issue, we recommend that if you enjoyed this week’s podcast you listen in on Eleanor’s other work exploring performance and sound at Noisy Ghost.

Podcast host Eleanor Russell is a Ph.D student at Northwestern University in the Interdisciplinary Program in Theatre and Drama. Her research interests include sound studies, women’s stand-up and performance art, and feminist epistemologies and phenomenologies. She is affiliated with the Critical Theory Cluster at Northwestern. MA in Theatre History and Criticism from Brooklyn College, BA Religious Studies from Grinnell College.

Featured image by Domriel @Flickr CC BY-NC.

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Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale” – Sonia Li

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory– Stuart Fowkes

Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs – Tim J. Anderson

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