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Of Sound Machines and Recording, Sharing that Transcends Time and Space

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This is the conclusion to a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert.  Read Part One from Monday, January 12th here.

As we are primarily a visual culture, no longer connected to what environments can tell us through sound, we’ve lost aural acuity once central to the dynamic of our lives.

From what we have just begun to see, it appears that ancient human beings had learned well the lessons imparted by natural sounds. Their lives depended as much (if not more) on their ability to hear and understand the audio information imparted by their surroundings as those given by visual cues. –Bernard Krause, Ph.D The Soundscape Newsletter 06, June, 1993

Birth 

All newborns emerge with the same cry, it is near impossible to distinguish one from another, even as a mother. This could be for many reasons and serve many purposes. Should something happen to a birth mother, the indistinguishable cry may help draw attention from another. It could be that, considering niche effect (in which animals adapt their calls to a frequency less populated by other environmental sounds), aside from biological reasons, a newborn’s cry is shaped by the wombscape from whence it came, and I speculate that generally speaking one wombscape is similar to another. Primarily what a fetus is hearing is low frequency. So it would serve that they would have an instinct to initially call out in a high frequency range. The baby then develops its cry according to its surrounding, such as a household in the city versus a country, a household with other children or not, a household with constant media sound.

My daughter has the most incredible earsplitting high frequency bark when she wants attention. If this doesn’t work (such as when “Baby, Mama has to wash the garden manure from her hands before she picks you up”), she’ll roll into a gritty horrific low growl that sounds like she’s being strangled. One of these always works, and I often wonder about these sounds’ relationship to the white noise (her specific mix in a more mid-range involving pink noise and a “rain on roof” recording) that has been a constant since her birth, and is still used for naps, some feedings, and bedtime.

 

Sound Machines and Noise

From my late pregnancy insomnia, to creating a calming environment in the labor room at the hospital, to keeping a consistent calming environment in the recovery room, to using that sound as a signal that it is time to calm, time to sleep…a sound machine has been a constant already in my daughter’s new world. It started with an app in Paris, at a festival during my third trimester, my waddling condition wouldn’t allow me to walk around much nor meet friends for drinks, etc. So I choose to stay in the hotel room and read. The fetal babe wasn’t in the mood to read, kicking and dancing, perhaps excited from the music at the festival. For a little while I played with her, her kicking in response to my pokes and prods. But soon I knew we both needed to both settle down. I was always fascinated by my parents’ sound machine as a child, it seemed something magical. I found and downloaded an app that allowed you to create your own mix, and so it began.

But recent research poses the question of whether a sound machine can actually affect hearing development. Some researchers have questioned if prolonged exposure to consistent sound could affect auditory pathways to the brain. I wonder what then of infants who grow up near, say, the ocean…or like my mother near a stream and small waterfall, a constant sound in her childhood and soundtrack to her memories from then. Or near a busy road or even walkway. Of course I want the babe to grow up to enjoy and focus on a varied soundscape. But at certain points, the noise has been a lifesaver! It’s been especially useful now combatting construction sounds, as babies tend to focus on background sounds, most likely for survival:

.

Of course it is very important to be aware of the strength of the sound a baby is exposed to, all too easy for our very visual culture to ignore. Even a sound machine with the volume too high, or the proximity too close, could reach decibels over 80, a threshold that could cause the tiny hair cells in the ear needed for hearing to die. As we lose these, we start to lose our hearing. The amount of energy in a sound doubles with even just a three decibel climb. If any sound makes it difficult to hold a regular conversation, chances are it’s past this threshold and could be doing damage. Our world is in many ways getting increasingly louder. As our cities grow, its sounds grow, and we are exposed to more constant and louder soundscapes. Will an accidental evolution be for us to adapt to losing our hearing? For me of course, this is a very bleak thought.

 

Death

Your words are preserved in the tin foil and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead in exactly the same tone of voice you spoke in then. . . . This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, speaks with your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again, to a generation that could never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you chose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.

-Edison’s Ars Memoria, concept for the phonograph

Kauai O'O

Kaua’i `O’o, extinct since 1987

A recorded sound transcends time. It allows a listener to share a space and perspective with the recordist. It allows a future people to hear the songs of people passed, and of their shared past. It allows for an extinct bird to call into the future, for a child to hear that bird and wonder, and question, and to have that question affect her future and therefore perhaps the future of others. I often think about what soundscapes or sound I have experienced that my daughter might not have the opportunity to experience when she’s older. Already since my childhood growing up in part in Hawaii, three birds I knew, I had heard, that my mother grew up with, that her father grew up with, that his parents grew up with (and so on)…are no longer calling in the wild. But what the world and I can share with her and her generation, can give her, can leave her, are recordings.

Kaua’i `O’o: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/6031

Po’ouli: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/5125

Hawaiian Crow: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/13434

The library I am constantly creating, shaped by my choice and perspective…where to hit start, when to stop, where to point the mic, what equipment to use, how to frame this aural moment that captured me and invoked the desire to save and to share.

I think of this very often these days, as a friend and great soundscape ecologist and composer has passed. Steve Miller (www.stevemiller.net ) left a wealth of music, sound, and writing that his daughter and family can share. His daughter will be able to put on headphones and share a space her father formed with his perspective, his choices, his interests. A sharing active with him.

A sharing that transcends time and space.

 

The artist and her daughter in the studio, Image by JS

The artist and her daughter in the studio, Image by JS

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Future Memory, for Odette

Sound has a hold over my daughter in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. It’s almost a punch line that the daughter of two parents that work with and study sound would have such sensitivity. The smallest sounds can pull her from sleep, can pull her from eating. They can be a character for her, making her laugh, cry, yawn, widen her eyes in amazement.

It was only natural my partner and I decided to make an album as a gift to our daughter. We had wanted to do the same marking our history together years back, and had various sound recordings and unfinished ditties in a library marked “Future Memory.”  The idea behind it was an aural coming together of our history and feelings expressed and translated through sound and song. We realized, of course, in many ways this was Odette’s history as well, and she our future.

The album became Future Memory, for Odette, a lullaby album in dedication and celebration to her, and including sounds from her growing in the womb, soundscapes we hope will be a part of her life, and in recording them in some way ensuring that, a score written for her while I was in labor from a friend, songs her father and I began and finished together during the stages of pregnancy, birth, and her first year, and collaborations and contributions in sound and music from family and friends would be her legacy.

This is her first song:

Dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steve Miller

“Future Memory, for Odette” to be released in 2015 through Wild Silence (www.wild-silence.com ). A dedication album to a new born daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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Sound at ASA 2014

big boom bike

The 2014 American Studies Association meeting will be held in Los Angeles, an appropriate setting for this year’s theme, “Fun and the Fury: Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.” The conference, which will take place from November 6-9, will offer panels of interest to Sound Studies scholars. The City of Angels has long served as a muse for artists and thinkers interested in creating innovative worlds. Los Angeles is a place of experimentation and futuristic transformation, or as Norman Mailer called it, a constellation of plastic. Part of Mexico until 1848, Los Angeles is a global metropolis that embodies the keen contradictions of national and capital in the 21st century, often exposing the nuts and bolts that hold together these structures. Fun, fury, and the “dialectics of pleasure and pain” are useful for conceptualizing the sharp contrasts that characterize the city of LA itself. A panel on Sunday, Central Avenue Breakdown: Gender, Race, and Coming of Age in a Los Angeles Jazz Community, will discuss the historical complexities of the city of Los Angeles by way of the African American entertainment district of Central Avenue (Sunday 2:00-3:45).

This year’s ASA program features an increase in sound and music-related papers in comparison to last year’s conference in Washington, D.C., which was concerned with the logic of debt. The upswing is partially due to the 2014 theme, which emphasizes the production of alternative spaces that counter repressive forces. As the program committee, comprised of co-chairs J. Jack Halberstam, Fred Moten, and Sandra Soto, writes, “The critical power of ‘fun’ in this unconventional convention theme seeks nothing less than the reimagining of possibility, impossibility, probability and freedom.” Sound Studies is already geared toward thinking about how careful listening can offer new ways of being-in-the-world, so the increase in music-themed panels this year is not surprising. As music scholars and listeners have long insisted, music is foundational to embodied experiences of pleasure and fun. Music’s ability to transport listeners and to cultivate collectivity makes it uniquely relevant to discussions of pleasure.

"So Much Noise" by Flickr user Doran, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 http://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/9260000239

“So Much Noise” by Flickr user Doran, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One notable exception to the musical focus is the second of the two ASA Sound Studies Caucus panels, “The Racial Politics of Listening: ‘Accents,’ Hate Speech, and Language in the U.S. Media,” which will take place on Saturday from 2:00-3:45. Featuring Dolores Inés Casillas, Sara Hinojos, Marci McMahon, and SO! Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever, The panel will examine the role of speech and auditory cues in constructing racial representations. An individual paper by Craig Eley in the Environment and Culture Caucus panel Ecologies of Pleasure and Pain: Deviance, Destruction and Desire in Environmental History, entitled Psychologically Ultimate Seashores: Natural Sound, Personal Pleasure, and Recording Technologies is also worth mentioning (Sunday 10:00-11:45).

This year’s call for papers asked for participants to formulate creative modes for presenting their work, and Sound Studies scholars are stepping up. The first panel hosted by the ASA Sound Studies Caucus (Saturday 10:00-11:45) is an exciting listening dialogue entitled “Power Ballads and Blurred Lines: Songs from the Boundaries of Fun.” The commentators, Jeff Chang, Alice Echols, Evelyn McDonnell, Oliver Wang, and Rubén Martinez, will each play a song and discuss how pop music that is treated as harmless fun may nevertheless speak to social dynamics in real and important ways. A roundtable on Music, Fashion and the Power of (Queer) Nightlife (Friday 12:00-1:45) will include scholars of nightlife as well as party promoters and DJs, discussing the possibility for belonging in subcultural “nightworlds.”

"Hotel Bonaventure" by Flickr user S. N. Johnson-Roehr, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Hotel Bonaventure” by Flickr user S. N. Johnson-Roehr, CC BY-NC 2.0

This year there are a number of notable African American Studies panels, including After the Rain: Vanguardist Jazz in the Seventies (Thursday 10:00-11:45) organized in memory of Amiri Baraka, Stomp, Swerve, Rattle, and Roll: Fun and Pleasure as Political Resistance in American Blues Music (Thursday 4:00-5:45), What Words Can’t Do: Instrumentals, Identity, and Interpretation (Sunday 10:00-11:45), and Pleasure, Pain, Politics, and Performance: Black Women Artists and Their Fans (Sunday 12:00-1:45). The category of pleasure provides a framework for panels on The Aesthetics of Pleasure in California Funk (Sunday 10:00-11:45) and Performative Pleasures of Blackness: The Creation, Consumption, and Conflict of Pleasurable Blacknesses. Sound scholars also continue to investigate transnational modes of listening, in panels such as The Transnational Movements of Hip-Hop (Thursday 12:00-1:45), Fugitive Preludes: Chicana/o Popular Music and the Neoliberal City (Friday 10:00-11:45), and Performing Decolonial Aesthetics and the Politics of Pain and Pleasure in Music Across the Americas (Friday 12:00-1:45).

Two years ago, Jennifer Stoever mentioned that work in the field of Sound Studies was entering a period of reflection and becoming more nuanced and robust with sub-fields starting to develop. It is clear from this year’s program that the field is both broadening and deepening its focus. After two years of official recognition under the ASA Sound Studies Caucus and three years after the publication of Sound Clash, the special issue of American Quarterly, scholarship on sound in American Studies is developing in a myriad of ways and is coming into its own as a field.

Jump to THURSDAY, November 6
Jump to FRIDAY, November 7
Jump to SATURDAY, November 8
Jump to SUNDAY, November 9

Featured image: “Carmaheaven” by Flickr user waltarrrrr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after ASA 2013.  If we somehow missed you or your panel in this round up, please let our Managing Editor know!: lms@soundingoutblog.com

Meghan Drury is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies at the George Washington University. She received an MA in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside in 2006. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Aural Exotics: The Middle East in American Popular Music 1950-2011.” This project examines the interplay between popular music and American cultural representations of the Middle East from the mid-20th century to the present, illustrating how music and sound acted a means of consolidating and disseminating a range of ideas about Middle Eastern culture in the American mainstream. She is particularly interested in the way that sound increased the visibility of Arab Americans both before and after 9/11, offering a space for negotiations of identity. More broadly, Meghan’s interests include sound studies, U.S.-Middle East cultural relations, and Arab American cultural performance. 

 

"Echo Park September 2010" by Flickr user Calvin Fleming

“Echo Park September 2010″ by Flickr user Calvin Fleming

THURSDAY, November 6th, 2014

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Religiosity and Altered States
Westin Bonaventure, Los Feliz (L1)

—Richard Cullen Rath, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Dangerous Fun in Puritan New England: Mary Ross and the Singing Quakers

Riots, Radios, and the Historical Record: Mass Media and Crisis in Twentieth American Literature and Art
Westin Bonaventure, San Bernardino (L1)

—Hadji Bakara, University of Chicago (IL)
Guernica on the Radio: Anti-Fascism, Mass Media, and the Emergence of Human Rights Activism

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

Playing with Rules: Having Fun and Keeping Order in Mid-Century Racial Liberalism
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Yusuke Torii, Setsunan University (Japan)
S. I. Hayakawa’s Jazz Credentials and Racial Liberalism in Mid-Century America

—Masayoshi Yamada, Doshisha University (Japan)
Jazz, Fans, and the Pleasure of Listening during Turbulent Times

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After the Rain: Vanguardist Jazz in the Seventies (in memory of Amiri Baraka)
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Ronald Radano, University of Wisconsin, Madison (WI)

PAPERS:
Paul A. Anderson, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
“Thunder Blossoms Gorgeously”: Abstracting the Pastoral in Marion Brown’s Georgia Trilogy

Robert Maclean, The College of Wooster (OH)
Ensemble After Eventuality: Neoliberalism and the Duo Form

Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University (NY)
Notes Toward a “Loft” History of Jazz

COMMENT:
Ronald Radano, University of Wisconsin, Madison (WI)

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12:00 pm – 1:45 pm

Fun in Public: The Cultures of Amateur Labor
Westin Bonaventure, Palos Verdes (L1)

—Alexander W. Corey, University of Colorado, Boulder (CO)
Impulsive Triads: Frédéric Chopin, Amateur Pianists, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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The Transnational Movements of Hip-Hop
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica D (L3)

CHAIR:
Alexander Weheliye, Northwestern University (IL)

PAPERS:
Lenna Tayseer Odeh, University of California, San Diego (CA)
Acts of Sumud: Exploits of Resistance Through the Palestinian Hip-Hop Youth and Political Prisoner Movements

Najwa Mayer, Yale University (CT)
Muhammad was a punk rocker: Seeking Faith, Fun, and Form in Taqwacore

Elliott H. Powell, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (MN)
The Sounds of Afro-South Asian Pleasure: Hip Hop, 9/11, and South-South Connections

Halifu Osumare, University of California, Davis (CA)
Play and Pain in Black Atlantic Hip-Hop: Hiplife in Ghana as Case Study

COMMENT:
Alexander Weheliye, Northwestern University (IL)

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

alt. Black Musical History
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Courtney Michael Brown, California State University, Fullerton (CA)

PAPERS:
Matthew Hayden Anthony, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg (PA)
I Got Country Roots: Race, Identity and Black Country Singers in the 1970s

Kreg Abshire, Johnson & Wales University (CO)
On Sonic Nostalgia: Making Sense of alt.country’s Hip Traditionalism

Keith D. Leonard, American University (DC)
Who Stole the Soul: An Avant-Garde History of the Dark Room Collective

Christa Holm Vogelius, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)
The Jennie C. Lee Archive and the Silent Musical History of the Tuskegee Institute

COMMENT:
Courtney Michael Brown, California State University, Fullerton (CA)

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The Choreography of Protest
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara B (L1)

—Sarah Ehlers, University of Houston (TX)
The Joys of the Picket Line: Reading the Rhythms of the Left

—Robert Michael Zecker, Saint Francis Xavier University (Canada)
A Mandolin Orchestra Could Attract a Lot of Attention: Interracial Fun with Radical Immigrants, 1930–1954

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Empire of Funk: Hip Hop and Representation in Filipina/o America—A Roundtable
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara C (L1)

CHAIR:
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, San Francisco State University (CA)

PANELISTS:
Roderick Labrador, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Mark Villegas, University of California, Irvine (CA)
Mario “Nomi” De Mira, Artist
Stephen Bischoff, Washington State University, Pullman (WA)

COMMENT:
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, San Francisco State University (CA)

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On Athletes and Outlaws: Asian Americans in Popular Culture and the Pleasures of Recognition
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica C (L3)

—Douglas S. Ishii, University of Maryland, College Park (MD)
Not about race, per se: Dave Boyle’s Asian American Music Film

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4:00 pm – 5:45 pm

Love and Rage: Cultural Strategies in Postwar U.S. Anarchism
Westin Bonaventure, San Bernardino (L1)

—Shon MeckFessel, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
From a Disavowal of Commitment to a Commitment of Disavowal: (Non)Left Positionalities in 1980s Post-Punk and Anarchy-Punk

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Alternative Economies of Pleasure in Contemporary Southern Working-Class Cultures
Westin Bonaventure, San Pedro (L1)

—Nicholas Neil Gorrell, University of Mississippi (MS)
Economies of Scarcity and Abundance in Contemporary Southern Blues

—Anne Gessler, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Second Lines, Creative Economies, and Gentrification: Music Cooperatives in Post-Katrina New Orleans

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Stomp, Swerve, Rattle, and Roll: Fun and Pleasure as Political Resistance in American Blues Music
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica A (L3)

CHAIR:
Daphne Brooks, Yale University (CT)

PAPERS:
Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University (NC)
“Let Me Bang Your Box”: The “Erotic Life” of the Blues

Sonnet Retman, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
Memphis Minnie’s Jukebox Blues

Kimberly Mack, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
“That Natural Blues Man Look”: Black Elvis and the Demythologization of the Black Blues Figure

R. J. Smith, Independent Scholar
Calling All Freaks!: The Licentious Blues Spirit of the Rent Party and the Buffet Flat

COMMENT:
Adam Gussow, University of Mississippi (MS)

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**Wildness: The Fun and the Fury of Anarchy**
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Mel Y. Chen, University of California, Berkeley (CA)

PAPERS:
Peter Coviello, Bowdoin College (ME)
The Wild Less Than the Good: Erotics and Biopolitics in Thoreau

Jack Halberstam, University of Southern California (CA)
‘Wildness at the End of the World’

Tavia Nyong’o, New York University (NY)
William Blake’s Wild America

COMMENT:
Mel Y. Chen, University of California, Berkeley (CA)

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"Busker (street musician) #2" by Flickr user Sunny Lapin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Busker (street musician) #2″ by Flickr user Sunny Lapin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

FRIDAY, November 7th

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Feeling Queer
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel B (L1)

—Elias Krell, Northwestern University (IL)
Mixing Sound: Technologies of Fem(me)ninity and Mixed Race in Kelly Moe

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Life-Writing, Musical Lives
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Ulrich Adelt, University of Wyoming (WY)

PAPERS:
Nassim Winnie Balestrini, Karl-Franzens-University (Austria)
Fun, Fury, Fans: Affective Strategies in Intermedial Hip-Hop Life Writing

Mercy Romero, Sonoma State University (CA)
Two Lives in Music

Petra Rivera-Rideau, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VA)
The Pleasures and Pains of Love: Listening to La Lupe and Ivy Queen

Jessica Elaine Teague, University of Nevada–Las Vegas (NV)
Charles Mingus and the Serious Fun of Jazz Autobiography

COMMENT:
Ulrich Adelt, University of Wyoming (WY)

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**Caucus: War and Peace Studies: Reconsidering the ‘R and R’: Dialectics of Violence and Pleasure in Militarism**
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Anita B (L1)

—Patricia Stuelke, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
You’re a Criminal as Long as You’re Mind: The U.S. Invasion of Panama and the Sounds of Bad Romance

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**ASA Program Committee: Uncontrolled Substances/Altered States**

Westin Bonaventure, Level 1, San Bernadino

—Josh Kun, University of Southern California (CA)
The Musical Más Allá: Narco/Necro/Anarco

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

Fugitive Preludes: Chicana/o Popular Music and the Neoliberal City
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel C (L1)

CHAIR:
Christina Zanfagna, Santa Clara University (CA)

PAPERS:
Wanda Alarcón, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
Variations on a Theme: Performing América on the National Stage

Jonathan Gomez, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Teen Post to Rainbow Alley: Facing Unexpectancy with Unexpectant Punk Rock Social Spaces

Kurt Newman, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Undoing the Math: Chingo Bling, the “Not-All,” and the Politics of Parody

COMMENT:
Christina Zanfagna, Santa Clara University (CA)

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Willful Subjects: Action, Agency, and Politics
Westin Bonaventure, San Anita B (L1)

—Neil Roberts, Williams College (MA)
It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: Decoding the Trayvon Martin Event

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12:00 pm – 1:45 pm

Music, Fashion and the Power of (Queer) Nightlife
Westin Bonaventure, Los Cerritos (L1)

CHAIR:
Madison Moore, King’s College London (England)

PANELISTS:
Ananya Jahanara Kabir, King’s College London (England)
Matthew D. Morrison, Columbia University (NY)
Victor P. Corona, Fashion Institute of Technology (NY)
Gregory Alexander, Artist
Loren Granic, Artist
Amy Cakes Danky Dank, Artist

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High on Crack: Surveillance, Loss and Addiction in Black Communities
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Andreana Clay, San Francisco State University (CA)
“Kick in the Bass”: Sonic Navigation of Pleasure and Pain in Crack Lyrics

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Performing Decolonial Aesthetics and the Politics of Pain and Pleasure in Music Across the Americas
Westin Bonaventure, San Pedro (L1)

CHAIR:
Jaime Cardenas, Seattle Central Community College (WA)

PAPERS:
Marie “Keta” Miranda, University of Texas, San Antonio (TX)
Polka Dawgs: Tejana/o Dance as Pleasure in Response to Racial and Class Subordination

Marco Cervantes, University of Texas, San Antonio (TX)
Third Root Poetics Through Hip Hop Aesthetics: Performative Autoethnographies and Musical Empowerment

COMMENT:
Jaime Cardenas, Seattle Central Community College (WA)

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

Twelve Years a Slave: Sounds and Spectacles of Slavery
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Anita A (L1)

—Paul Fess, City University of New York, Graduate Center (NY)
“The most excruciating noise”: Power Structures of Music in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

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4:00 pm – 5:45 pm

Bittersweet: Remaking the Exhibit “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” for the Smithsonian Institution
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel A (L1)

CHAIR:
Juan Flores, New York University (NY)

PANELISTS:
Marisol Berrios Miranda, Independent Scholar
Shannon Dudley, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
Njoroge Njoroge, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Victor Hugo Viesca, California State University, Los Angeles (CA)

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We’re Listening: Surveillance Technologies and Non-Private Publics
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica B (L3)

CHAIR:
Gus Stadler, Haverford College (PA)

PAPERS:
Andrew Hamsher, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Controlling Fantasyland: Surveillance and Freedom in Transmedia Storyworlds

Jason Farman, University of Maryland, College Park (MD)
Creative Misuse as Resistance: Surveillance, Mobile Technologies, and Locative Games

Brian Hochman, Georgetown University (DC)
Eavesdrop Nation: The Rise of ‘Private Ear’ Wiretap, 1959-1974

Stephen Knadler, Spelman College (GA)
Kerry’s OMG Washington: Re-Scandalizing Racial Surveillance in the Obama Era

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"2nd Street Tunnel, Los Angeles -- Dec 30, 2010" by Flickr user Ray_from-LA, CC BY 2.0

“2nd Street Tunnel, Los Angeles — Dec 30, 2010″ by Flickr user Ray_from-LA, CC BY 2.0

SATURDAY, November 8th

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Indigeneity and Difference
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara B (L1)

Elizabeth Sine, University of California, San Diego (CA)
Native Jazz: Radical Multiraciality and the Politics of Desire in an Age of Global Crisis

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

Caucus: Sound Studies: Power Ballads and Blurred Lines: Songs from the Boundaries of Fun
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara C (L1)

CHAIR:
Eric Weisbard, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)

PANELISTS:
Jeff Chang, Stanford University (CA)
Alice Echols, University of Southern California (CA)
Evelyn McDonnell, Loyola Marymount University (CA)
Oliver Wang, California State University, Long Beach (CA)
Rubén Martínez, Loyola Marymount University (CA)

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

Caucus: Sound Studies: The Racial Politics of Listening: “Accents,” Hate Speech, and Language in the U.S. Media
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

CHAIR:
Isabel Molina-Guzman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL)

PAPERS:
Sara Veronica Hinojos, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Reading Lupe Vélez, Mexicanness, and Her Fiery “Accent”

Dolores Inés Casillas, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Inglés Sin Barreras, Rosetta Stone, and the Politics of Language Learning

Marci McMahon, University of Texas, Pan American (TX)
Staging the Sound of Citizenship in Josefina Lopez’s Detained in the Desert

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, State University of New York, Binghamton (NY)
“You. Got. To. Un. Der. Stand”: Rachel Jeantel, “Reasonable” Listening, and the Sonic Color-line

COMMENT:
Isabel Molina-Guzman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL)

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To Be Young, Global, and Black: The Global Circulations of Blackness and Americanness
Westin Bonaventure, San Pedro (L1)

CHAIR:
Jeff K. Chang, Stanford University (CA)

PAPERS:
—Samir Meghelli, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL)
Rapping and Race-ing Across the Atlantic: Hip Hop and Racial Politics in Postcolonial France

—H. Samy Alim, Stanford University (CA), Shaheen Ariefdien, Independent Scholar (South Africa)
Whaddup, San?: Hip Hop, “Colouredness,” and the Construction of Khoisan Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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4:00 pm – 5:45 pm

Racial Meanings and Musical Performance in Film: Uses of Folk, Calypso, and Jazz in Films, 1944–1965
Westin Bonaventure, Beaudry B (L1)

CHAIR:
Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)

PAPERS:
Geoffrey Jacques, Independent Scholar
Jazz, Film, and the Black Hipster

Shane Vogel, Indiana University–Bloomington (IN)
Trinidad Goes Hollywood: The Ersatz Epistemology of the Calypso Craze

Judith E. Smith, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
Using, and Being Used by Hollywood: Harry Belafonte on Film, 1953–1959

Jacqueline Stewart, University of Chicago (IL)
The Cry of Jazz and The Corner: Filming Music of Everyday Black Life in Chicago

COMMENT:
Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)

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Liberating Encounters: Cultural Consumption as Agent of Pleasure and Social Change in Contemporary Asian, Latin-American, and U.S. Popular Culture
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Patty Ahn, University of Southern California (CA)
Detours of Indebtedness: South Korean Pop Music and Neoliberal Logics of Race

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Arab Worlds: Then and Now
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Monica C (L3)

—Meghan E. Drury, George Washington University (DC)
The Belly of the Wail: Feminism and Arab Hybridity in 1990s World Music

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"Capitol Records Building" by Flickr user Wieland Van Dijk, CC BY-ND-SA 2.0

“Capitol Records Building” by Flickr user Wieland Van Dijk, CC BY-ND-SA 2.0

SUNDAY, November 9th

8:00 am – 9:45 am

Sports, Sex, and Music across the Pacific during the Cold War
Westin Bonaventure, Beaudry B (L1)

—Mari Yoshihara, University of Hawai’i, Manoa (HI)
Lenny Blows Up the World: Classical Musicians Play the Cold War

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Sonics of Black Excess, 1940s to 1980s
Westin Bonaventure, Los Cerritos (L1)

CHAIR:
Imani D. Owens, Princeton University (NJ)

PAPERS:
Brian Lefresne, University of Guelph Canada
A Fool in Space: Sun Ra the Jester at the Carnival

Charles McGovern, College of William and Mary (VA)
I Want a Lavender Cadillac: Fun, Excess and Labor in Black Popular Music, 1940–1970

Terrion L. Williamson, Michigan State University (MI)
Im Not Your Superwoman: Black Female Embodiment and the Sites of Social Intimacy

Brian Edward Jones, College of William and Mary (VA)
Big Fun with the Prince of Darkness: Miles Davis and the Death of the American Dream

COMMENT:
Imani D. Owens, Princeton University (NJ)

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10:00 am – 11:45 am

What Words Can’t Do: Instrumentals, Identity, and Interpretation
Westin Bonaventure, Los Cerritos (L1)

CHAIR:
Shana L. Redmond, University of Southern California (CA)

PANELISTS:
Shana L. Redmond, University of Southern California (CA)
Tsitsi Jaji, University of Pennsylvania (PA)
Guthrie Ramsey, Jr., University of Pennsylvania (PA)
Tamara Roberts, University of California, Berkeley (CA)

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The Pleasures and Pains of Hip Hop Listening: New Aesthetic Approaches
Westin Bonaventure, San Bernardino (L1)

CHAIRS:
Jill Toliver Richardson, City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College (NY)

James Ford, Occidental College (CA)

PAPER:
Karen Jaime, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (IL), Jonathan Gray, City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (NY), Candice Jenkins, City University of New York, Hunter College (NY), James Ford, Occidental College (CA)
The Pleasures and Pains of Hip Hop Listening: New Aesthetic Approaches

COMMENT:
Michael Jeffries, Wellesley College (MA)

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“All the Way Live”: The Aesthetics of Pleasure in California Funk
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara C (L1)

CHAIR:
Laura Harris, Pitzer College (CA)

PAPERS:
Scot Brown, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
“All the Way Live”: The Live Funk Aesthetic of Lakeside

Cheryl L. Keyes, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
From Mademoiselle Mabry to Betty Davis: The Reigning Funk Diva from the Underground

Tony Bolden, University of Kansas (KS)
Are You Funkified?: The Choreopoetics of Pleasure in the Music of Sly and the Family Stone

COMMENT:
Laura Harris, Pitzer College (CA)

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**Caucus: Environment and Culture: Ecologies of Pleasure and Pain: Deviance, Destruction, and Desire in Environmental History**
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara A (L1)

—Craig Eley, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Psychologically Ultimate Seashores: Natural Sound, Personal Pleasure, and Recording Technologies

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12:00 pm – 1:45 pm

Pleasure, Pain, Politics, and Performance: Black Women Artists and Their Fans
Westin Bonaventure, Palos Verdes (L1)

CHAIR:
Gayle Wald, George Washington University (DC)

PANELISTS:
Ruth Feldstein, Rutgers University, Newark (NJ)
Emily Lordi, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA)
Cherise Smith, University of Texas, Austin (TX)
Gayle Wald, George Washington University (DC)

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Performative Pleasures of Blackness: The Creation, Consumption, and Conflict of Pleasureable Blacknesses
Westin Bonaventure, San Fernando (L1)

—Danielle C. Heard, University of California, Davis (CA)
Feeling Good: Nina Simone and the Pleasures of Live Performance, Montreux 1976

—Scott Poulson-Bryant, Harvard University (MA)
The ‘Unruly Delights’ of the Great Black Way: Contradiction, Pleasure and Black Musicals of the 1970s

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Can Black Women Have Fun?: Beyond Mammies and Martyrs
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel A (L1)

—Margo Crawford, Cornell University (NY)
Erykah Badu’s Black Fantastic Re-invigoration of Black Cultural Nationalism

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2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

Central Avenue Breakdown: Gender, Race, and Coming of Age in a Los Angeles Jazz Community
Westin Bonaventure, Beaudry B (L1)

CHAIR:
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University (NY)

PAPERS:
Maxine Gordon, Fordham University (NY)
Dexter Gordon and Melba Liston: The ‘Mischievous Lady Session’, June 5, 1947, Dial Records

Monica Hairston-O’Connell, Columbia College (IL), Sherrie Tucker, University of Kansas (KS)
Revisiting Central Avenue through Melba Liston’s Oral Histories

Nichole T. Rustin, Independent Scholar
Playing with Dynamics: Racialized Masculinity, Jazz, and Coming of Age on 1940s Central Avenue

COMMENT:
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University (NY)

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What Beyoncé (and Her Stans) Can Teach Us About The Pleasures of Intersectional Identity
Westin Bonaventure, Santa Barbara A (L1)

CHAIR:
Deborah Paredez, University of Texas, Austin (TX)

PANELISTS:
Clare Croft, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
Micah Salkind, Brown University (RI)
Kristen Warner, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (AL)
Chelsea Bullock, University of Oregon (OR)
Deborah Paredez, University of Texas, Austin (TX)

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"DSCN9630" by Flickr user Carsten Titibach, CC BY 2.0

“DSCN9630″ by Flickr user Carsten Titibach, CC BY 2.0

The Sonic Roots of Surveillance Society: Intimacy, Mobility, and Radio

Radio for Backup - 92/365 - 2 April 2013

Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

Rounding out our series on surveillance, Kathleen Battles offers a historical perspective that shows how early twentieth century crime drama naturalized practices of citizen surveillance. A million eyes were activated as millions of listeners learned that the immediacy of radio and telephone allowed for an unprecedented level of participation in law enforcement. Calling all cars…Calling all cars… -AT

Police Headquarters, a 1932 radio crime drama, was produced in the infancy of narrative radio. Containing barely 12 minutes of narrative content, the program opened each episode with a repeating segment of call, connection, and dispatch to quickly establish both the crime committed and how the police responded to it. For example, in the “Payroll Robbery” episode it takes just over a minute and a half to hear a phone call to the titular headquarters, its connection to the proper unit, a radio call to a specific police car, and the responding officers arriving at the assigned location. Compared with the graphically and visually intense images of modern surveillance in contemporary popular culture, this brief exchange no doubt sounds quaint, simplistic, and even banal. After all, radios, cars, and telephones have served as the routine backdrop of most police dramas for some 70 years. But in 1932 the interlinking of these technologies was factually, as well as imaginatively, novel. This essay shows how radio, as “new media,” was central to imagining surveillance in sonic terms, prefiguring many features of contemporary surveillance practices.

"Kindergarden of the Air," by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation CC BY-NC-ND.

“Kindergarden of the Air,” by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation CC BY-NC-ND.

The introduction of radio and cars into police work took place in the first decades of the twentieth century, especially during the years between the two world wars that Richard Popp (2011) calls “the machine age”. He argues that this period witnessed vast transformations brought on by cars and radios, which, when combined with existing technologies like the telephone, forged new communication networks that transformed both work and leisure. These changes were central to the narratives of criminality and policing that emerged during the interwar years. Police were the focus of radio dramas, including Police Headquarters and Calling All Cars. These dramas played with the intermingling of automobility, telephony, and radio in ways that spoke to the main problems police forces saw themselves facing: organized, professional, mobile, machine-age criminals. Cars, telephones, and automobiles were not just tools to criminals, but they were also the building blocks for a machine age surveillance made possible by the sonic power of radio.

Recently, Robin James (2014) has suggested that the acousmatic is a useful metaphor for understanding the emerging practices of data based surveillance. Acousmatic surveillance listens for patterns in “ambient data environments” instead of profiling individuals in the panoptic sense. At the turn of the twentieth century, radio allowed for a panacoustic mastery of spaces that bridged both panoptic and acousmatic surveillance. Radio also speaks to another key feature of information age surveillance, what Mark Andrejevic (2011) describes as the “redoubling of tools for communication and leisure as technologies for surveillance and security.” (165-66) The technical capabilities and imaginative potentials of radio help us to consider it both as a police technology and entertainment medium. The sonic power of radio was often figured as an “Invisible Man Hunter,” whose realignment of spatial and temporal arrangements rendered criminal escape impossible. As an entertainment medium, radio’s aurality was key to understanding its imaginative potential as highly intimate and mobile: invasive and expansive.

In Police Headquarters we hear how radio’s sonic and aural qualities come together. Radio acts as the link between the telephone and car, allowing for a swift response to a citizen request. The tactical use of sound effects and narrative compression in the broadcast situate the listener inside a machine like apparatus that presents the police as always available. At their broadest level, radio crime dramas aurally situate communication and transportation technologies, like radio, as key to both the narrative organization of the story and as a plot element. In the opening to the “Stop That Car” episode of Calling All Cars, a dispatcher advises for cars to be on the lookout for a specific car involved in a hit and run, including the address of the crime and possible location of the vehicle. Overlaid with sound effects made to signify a car, these openings situate listeners as riders eavesdropping on the adventures of mobile police officers. As the program’s title suggests, each episode opened with a police radio call, often voiced by real life LAPD dispatcher, Jessie Rosenquist. The program’s sponsor was the gasoline company that supplied the fuel for LAPD patrol cars – further linking cars and radio as a key theme. In the opening to the “Two Man Crime Wave Episode,” the very ad for the product is performed as a police radio call.

The conceit of eavesdropping on a police adventure did much to link private life and the police. This theme runs tandem to radio’s sonic immediacy, which allowed listeners to imagine a seemingly instantaneous response to citizen phone calls.. For example, the “July 4th in a Radio Car” episode of Calling All Cars situates radio listeners as sonic participants, able to ride along with police from the comfort of their own living rooms. Here, cars respond to a number of calls made by private citizens that bring the policing function into daily life. There is even one call that involves domestic violence, in particular. Throughout the episode, police are situated as an available force – thanks to the telephone, radio, and automobile – to adjudicate all manner of private disputes. In these particular instances the intimacy of radio as a machine age technology is “redoubled” with radio as a police technology. Radio’s intimate address allowed the voices of police officers to enter the private space of the home. At the same time, the machinery of crime fighting required citizen participation, most often figured through the phone call from within the space of the home to the police.

"Radio Police Automation 1924," by Robert Wade, CC BY-NC-SA.

“Radio Police Automation 1924,” by Robert Wade, CC BY-NC-SA.

If the intimacy of radio served to cross the divide between public and private, the spatial-temporal collapse achieved by radio made it ideal for sonically monitoring great swaths of space. Intimately linked with cars, radio was understood as especially mobile. Radio’s ability to compress the relationship between space and time is frequently dramatized. For example, in the “Crime vs. Time” episode of Calling All Cars, the host explains how radio has rendered the average response time to a police call for help only two minutes and forty seconds. The episode then proceeds to show how radio was used by the police to track and apprehend two men who robbed a movie theater. Representing phone and radio calls, while specifically referencing geographic locations, radio dramatists used radio’s aural dimensions to render radio’s sonic power of surveillance. Capable of reaching everywhere, police radio, when linked with the telephone and automobile, could be used to sonically pinpoint any somewhere that a criminal might try to escape to.

In our era of high-tech and sophisticated technologies, visually rich narratives, and algorithmically driven methods of tracking, there is certainly something simple, comforting, and even nostalgic in these tales of low-tech machine age criminal apprehension. Depression era true crime dramas certainly do not offer the kind of sophistication as information age narratives, such as The Wire. The medium’s sonic qualities were key to linking together its use as both a police instrument and as a domestic entertainment technology. With sonic forces invisibly and silently crossing the into intimate domestic spaces and covering large swaths of territory, radio became key to imagining many features that we take for granted as “new” about the information age: the control of movement across space, the constant availability of communicative connection, the promise of perfect coordination across a field of institutional actors, the marshaling of citizen participation in surveillance efforts, and the construction of increasingly intimate links between domestic life and law enforcement procedures. In serving as central node in refiguring shifting notions of space and time that existing institutions were not prepared to handle, radio’s sonic qualities remapped the meaning of police work and helped to establish a relationship between the police and citizen body that still resonates today. While not as technologically sophisticated, machine age policing and police narratives took advantage of radio’s double function as both a machine of coordination and medium of entertainment to extend the policing function into more areas of life. This reflects a sonic mode of power that allows neither the interior space of the home nor the exterior world of the road relief from police presence. This moment of technological interconnection, however, evoked the excitement and anxiety that made sonic surveillance at once thrilling and calming; a salve to soothe the woes of a world that now seemed intensely close and impossibly far flung. Is it any wonder that while some fret over the power of corporate and state dataveillance today, that some continue to find comfort in the possibility of being recognized as someone in a world of ever more intense interconnection?

Featured image “Radio for Backup” by Jonathan Flinchbaugh CC BY-NC-SA.

Kathleen Battles is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University. Her research focuses on radio history, especially as it relates to issues of policing, sound and surveillance, questions concerning technology and culture, and sexuality and the media. She is the author of Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (University of Minnesota Press, 2010); co-editor (with Joy Hayes and Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013); and co-author (with Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of Sexual Identities and the Media: An Introduction (Routledge, 2015). In addition, her work has appeared in Critical Studies in Media Communication, The Radio Journal, and the Journal of Homosexuality.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Acousmatic Surveillance and Big Data-Robin James

The Dark Side of Game Audio: The Sounds of Mimetic Control and Affective ConditioningAaron Trammell

À qui la rue?: On Mégaphone and Montreal’s Noisy Public Sphere-Lilian Radovac


Acousmatic Surveillance and Big Data

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Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

Moving on from cybernetic games to modes of surveillance that work through composition and patterns. Here, Robin James challenges us to consider the unfamiliar resonances produced by our IP addresses, search histories, credit trails, and Facebook posts. How does the NSA transform our data footprints into the sweet, sweet, music of surveillance? Shhhhhhhh! Let’s listen in. . . -AT

Kate Crawford has argued that there’s a “big metaphor gap in how we describe algorithmic filtering.” Specifically, its “emergent qualities” are particularly difficult to capture. This process, algorithmic dataveillance, finds and tracks dynamic patterns of relationships amongst otherwise unrelated material. I think that acoustics can fill the metaphor gap Crawford identifies. Because of its focus on identifying emergent patterns within a structure of data, rather than its cause or source, algorithmic dataveillance isn’t panoptic, but acousmatic. Algorithmic dataveillance is acousmatic because it does not observe identifiable subjects, but ambient data environments, and it “listens” for harmonics to emerge as variously-combined data points fall into and out of phase/statistical correlation.

Dataveillance defines the form of surveillance that saturates our consumer information society. As this promotional Intel video explains, big data transcends the limits of human perception and cognition – it sees connections we cannot. And, as is the case with all superpowers, this is both a blessing and a curse. Although I appreciate emails from my local supermarket that remind me when my favorite bottle of wine is on sale, data profiling can have much more drastic and far-reaching effects. As Frank Pasquale has argued, big data can determine access to important resources like jobs and housing, often in ways that reinforce and deepen social inequities. Dataveillance is an increasingly prominent and powerful tool that determines many of our social relationships.

The term dataveillance was coined in 1988 by Roger Clarke, and refers to “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons.” In this context, the person is the object of surveillance and data is the medium through which that surveillance occurs. Writing 20 years later, Michael Zimmer identifies a phase-shift in dataveillance that coincides with the increased popularity and dominance of “user-generated and user-driven Web technologies” (2008). These technologies, found today in big social media, “represent a new and powerful ‘infrastructure of dataveillance,’ which brings about a new kind of panoptic gaze of both users’ online and even their offline activities” (Zimmer 2007). Metadataveillance and algorithmic filtering, however, are not variations on panopticism, but practices modeled—both historically/technologically and metaphorically—on acoustics.

In 2013, Edward Snowden’s infamous leaks revealed the nuts and bolts of the National Security Administration’s massive dataveillance program. They were collecting data records that, according to the Washington Post, included “e-mails, attachments, address books, calendars, files stored in the cloud, text or audio or video chats and ‘metadata’ that identify the locations, devices used and other information about a target.” The most enduringly controversial aspect of NSA dataveillance programs has been the bulk collection of Americans’ data and metadata—in other words, the “big data”-veillance programs.

 

Borrowed fro thierry ehrmann @Flickr CC BY.

Borrowed from thierry ehrmann @Flickr CC BY.

Instead of intercepting only the communications of known suspects, this big dataveillance collects everything from everyone and mines that data for patterns of suspicious behavior; patterns that are consistent with what algorithms have identified as, say, “terrorism.” As Cory Doctorow writes in BoingBoing, “Since the start of the Snowden story in 2013, the NSA has stressed that while it may intercept nearly every Internet user’s communications, it only ‘targets’ a small fraction of those, whose traffic patterns reveal some basis for suspicion.” “Suspicion,” here, is an emergent property of the dataset, a pattern or signal that becomes legible when you filter communication (meta)data through algorithms designed to hear that signal amidst all the noise.

Hearing a signal from amidst the noise, however, is not sufficient to consider surveillance acousmatic. “Panoptic” modes of listening and hearing, though epitomized by the universal and internalized gaze of the guards in the tower, might also be understood as the universal and internalized ear of the confessor. This is the ear that, for example, listens for conformity between bodily and vocal gender presentation. It is also the ear of audio scrobbling, which, as Calum Marsh has argued, is a confessional, panoptic music listening practice.

Therefore, when President Obama argued that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he was correct. But only insofar as nobody (human or AI) is “listening” in the panoptic sense. The NSA does not listen for the “confessions” of already-identified subjects. For example, this court order to Verizon doesn’t demand recordings of the audio content of the calls, just the metadata. Again, the Washington Post explains:

The data doesn’t include the speech in a phone call or words in an email, but includes almost everything else, including the model of the phone and the “to” and “from” lines in emails. By tracing metadata, investigators can pinpoint a suspect’s location to specific floors of buildings. They can electronically map a person’s contacts, and their contacts’ contacts.

NSA dataveillance listens acousmatically because it hears the patterns of relationships that emerge from various combinations of data—e.g., which people talk and/or meet where and with what regularity. Instead of listening to identifiable subjects, the NSA identifies and tracks emergent properties that are statistically similar to already-identified patterns of “suspicious” behavior. Legally, the NSA is not required to identify a specific subject to surveil; instead they listen for patterns in the ambience. This type of observation is “acousmatic” in the sound studies sense because the sounds/patterns don’t come from one identifiable cause; they are the emergent properties of an aggregate.

Borrowed from david @Flickr CC BY-NC.

Borrowed from david @Flickr CC BY-NC.

Acousmatic listening is a particularly appropriate metaphor for NSA-style dataveillance because the emergent properties (or patterns) of metadata are comparable to harmonics or partials of sound, the resonant frequencies that emerge from a specific combination of primary tones and overtones. If data is like a sound’s primary tone, metadata is its overtones. When two or more tones sound simultaneously, harmonics emerge whhen overtones vibrate with and against one another. In Western music theory, something sounds dissonant and/or out of tune when the harmonics don’t vibrate synchronously or proportionally. Similarly, tones that are perfectly in tune sometimes create a consonant harmonic. The NSA is listening for harmonics. They seek metadata that statistically correlates to a pattern (such as “terrorism”), or is suspiciously out of correlation with a pattern (such as US “citizenship”). Instead of listening to identifiable sources of data, the NSA listens for correlations among data.

Both panopticism and acousmaticism are technologies that incite behavior and compel people to act in certain ways. However, they both use different methods, which, in turn, incite different behavioral outcomes. Panopticism maximizes efficiency and productivity by compelling conformity to a standard or norm. According to Michel Foucault, the outcome of panoptic surveillance is a society where everyone synchs to an “obligatory rhythm imposed from the outside” (151-2), such as the rhythmic divisions of the clock (150). In other words, panopticism transforms people into interchangeable cogs in an industrial machine.  Methodologically, panopticism demands self-monitoring. Foucault emphasizes that panopticism functions most efficiently when the gaze is internalized, when one “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” and “makes them play…upon himself” (202). Panopticism requires individuals to synchronize themselves with established compulsory patterns.

Acousmaticism, on the other hand, aims for dynamic attunement between subjects and institutions, an attunement that is monitored and maintained by a third party (in this example, the algorithm). For example, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm facilitates the mutual adaptation of norms to subjects and subjects to norms. Facebook doesn’t care what you like; instead it seeks to transform your online behavior into a form of efficient digital labor. In order to do this, Facebook must adjust, in part, to you. Methodologically, this dynamic attunement is not a practice of internalization, but unlike Foucault’s panopticon, big dataveillance leverages outsourcing and distribution. There is so much data that no one individual—indeed, no one computer—can process it efficiently and intelligibly. The work of dataveillance is distributed across populations, networks, and institutions, and the surveilled “subject” emerges from that work (for example, Rob Horning’s concept of the “data self”). Acousmaticism tunes into the rhythmic patterns that synch up with and amplify its cycles of social, political, and economic reproduction.

Sonic Boom! Borrowed from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center @Flickr CC BY.

Sonic Boom! Borrowed from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center @Flickr CC BY.

Unlike panopticism, which uses disciplinary techniques to eliminate noise, acousmaticism uses biopolitical techniques to allow profitable signals to emerge as clearly and frictionlessly as possible amid all the noise (for more on the relation between sound and biopolitics, see my previous SO! essay). Acousmaticism and panopticism are analytically discrete, yet applied in concert. For example, certain tiers of the North Carolina state employee’s health plan require so-called “obese” and tobacco-using members to commit to weight-loss and smoking-cessation programs. If these members are to remain eligible for their selected level of coverage, they must track and report their program-related activities (such as exercise). People who exhibit patterns of behavior that are statistically risky and unprofitable for the insurance company are subject to extra layers of surveillance and discipline. Here, acousmatic techniques regulate the distribution and intensity of panoptic surveillance. To use Nathan Jurgenson’s turn of phrase, acousmaticism determines “for whom” the panoptic gaze matters. To be clear, acousmaticism does not replace panopticism; my claim is more modest. Acousmaticism is an accurate and productive metaphor for theorizing both the aims and methods of big dataveillance, which is, itself, one instrument in today’s broader surveillance ensemble.

Featured image “Big Brother 13/365″ by Dennis Skley CC BY-ND.

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism will be published by Zer0 books this fall, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

“Cremation of the senses in friendly fire”: on sound and biopolitics (via KMFDM & World War Z)–Robin James

The Dark Side of Game Audio: The Sounds of Mimetic Control and Affective ConditioningAaron Trammell

Listening to Whisperers: Performance, ASMR Community, and Fetish on YouTube–Joshua Hudelson

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