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A Conversation With Themselves: On Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature

S4 - Stormy

Hysterical Sound3Welcome to our second installment of Hysterical Sound. Last week I discussed silence and hysteria in relation to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s silent film Hysteria, suggesting that the hysteric’s vocalizations go unheard because we have tuned them out. In upcoming weeks Veronica Fitzpatrick will explore how the soundtrack of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be considered hysterical in its rejection of language and meaning and John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson share an excerpt from their performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.

Today, Gordon Sullivan, considers the video art series Hysterical Literature in relation to a long history of women’s vocalizations serving as aural fetishes for the pleasure of male listeners. In doing so he troubles the dichotomies raised by the project, dichotomies between masculine visual pleasure and feminine aurality, between language and bliss.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

Each video in filmmaker and photographer Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature series (2012-) – which consists of 11 “sessions” so far – appears deceptively simple. We see a black and white frame with a clothed woman seated at a table, visible from the sternum up, holding a book of her choosing. She announces her name and the title of the book before beginning to read. While reading, the subject generally begins to stumble, the speeding of reading slowing down or speeding up, changes in pitch and emphasis growing more pronounced. Eventually, she is able to read no more and gives in to sighs, groans, or silent, eye-closing paroxysms. When she returns to herself, she announces again her name and the title of the book before the “session” ends.

Despite the consistency of the concept, the 11 “sessions” have been viewed a combined 45 million times, and perhaps much of the appeal of the series is in what it doesn’t show. What we do not see – and indeed do not hear – is the “assistant” beneath the table with an Hitachi Magic Wand physically stimulating the subject. What might have been errors or difficulties in the reading are retroactively understood as evidence of the difficulty of “performing” under the attention of the vibrator.

According to Cubitt, the series’ title and conceit nod at the Victorian-era propensity for naming “unruly” female behavior as “hysterical,” where the cure was often the application of a vibrating device to produce “release.” Female sexuality is therefore the absent center of Hysterical Literature – it is there, but can be disavowed (at least visually), a trend that places it firmly in a culture that has an ambiguous relationship to female pleasure and its sounds.

As John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis note in “Aural Pleasure: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” the sounds of female pleasure are “more viable, less prohibited, and therefore more publically available form of representation than, for instance, the less ambiguous, more easily recognized money shot” that characterizes “hard core” pornography (104). Certainly Hysterical Literature’s home on YouTube would seem to confirm Corbett and Kapsalis’ claim that sounds of female pleasure “occur in places…that would otherwise ban visual pornography” (104).

Indeed, the question of pornography looms over Hysterical Literature, as Cubitt seeks to push on YouTube’s “Community Guidelines” by exhibiting female pleasure sonically (See also Joshua Hudelson for a discussion of sexual fetish and the ASMR community on Youtube). Here the sound of the subject’s voice echoes Linda Williams’s description in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and “The Frenzy of the Visible,” where the female voice “may stand as the most prominent signifier of female pleasure” that can stand in for the pleasure we are denied access to visually (123). In this way, the sound of female pleasure is, as Corbett and Kapsalis suggest, always evidentiary (104). For them, a woman’s pleasure may/must be corroborated by her sounds (For an alternative view of gender and sound as it relates to women, see Robin James’ “Gendered Voice and Social Harmony”).

This pleasure calls to mind Roland Barthes, who saw the possibility of bliss and representation as fundamentally incompatible. For Barthes, the “grain” of the voice is a bodily phenomenon, not one of language and signification. For him, “the cinema capture[s] the sound of speech close up…and make[s] us here in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle” (67). This “materiality” has a single purpose: bliss. This bliss doesn’t reside in language, with its representational aims, but in those aspects of the voice that are not ruled the signifier/signified dynamic.

What draws me to these discussions – and their relation to Hysterical Literature – is the almost overwhelming insistence on dichotomy. The visual “evidence” of hard core pornography is juxtaposed to the aural “evidence” of female pleasure. Male pleasure (on the side of the visible) is opposed to female pleasure (on the side of the invisible). Representation is incompatible with “bliss.”

This logic is not confined to discussions of sound, but is echoed in some of the writing on Hysterical Literature as well. In her profile (which included her own “session”), dancer and writer Toni Bentley argues that the series “juxtaposes the realm of words literally atop the realm of the erotic.” In her view, this immediately becomes a conflict: “Who would win the inevitable war? Upper body or lower? Logic or lust? Prefrontal cortex or hypothalamus?” Though her list of oppositions may seem idiosyncratic, she still insists on division before suggesting that what might emerge instead is that they “meld together.”

Bentley is not alone in understanding the videos this way, as other subjects find a clean break between “I am reading” and “I am orgasming” that would suggest a strict dichotomy between, as Barthes would put it, representation and bliss. For Bentley, this is a “literate, and literal, clitoral monologue that renders the Vagina Monologues merely aspirational.” I’m not sure that “monologue” captures the depth of what is happening in each Hysterical Literature session. Cubitt’s goal is to reveal something about his subjects, to use “distraction” as a means for revelation that ultimately removes him from the scene. Indeed, the participation of the vibrator-wielding “assistant” and Cubitt’s status as filmmaker argue that instead of a monologue, the series facilitates what Cubitt calls “a conversation with themselves.”

Though Cubitt and his subjects seek to maintain the division between the subject and her distraction, the series is far more interesting than that dichotomy would suggest. Hysterical Literature is interesting not because it juxtaposes “reading” and “orgasm,” but rather because of the rigor with which it is willing to dwell in between these two (apparently) opposed states. There is no cut, no switch in which a subject goes from reading to not-reading. Every video begins and ends the same way – we open on a woman telling us her name and her book, and end the same way, orgasm over with. In between, however, we have a combination of the book chosen by the subject and her augmented reading. Rather than the sighs and groans that supposedly evidence the subject’s pleasure, the more interesting elements are the sounds of the book transformed. The cadence that slows down, speeds up, gets lost, and must repeat. The drawn out vowels that teeter between a gracefully pronounced word and the abyss of unintelligibility. That the “struggle” will end in orgasms and the loss of speech is less significant than the attempt to maintain a voice in the face of what cannot be denied.

If we grant a gulf between “representation” and “bliss,” Hysterical Literature suggests that such a gulf is a productive place to be.

Gordon Sullivan is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, currently writing a dissertation on questions of sensation and the political in exploitation films.

Featured image taken from “Hysterical Literature: Session Four: Stormy“.

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Echo and the Chorus of Female Machines — AO Roberts

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

Standing Up, For Jose — Mandie O’Connell

Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs

True revolutionaries are Guided by Love

Sound and AffectMarginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience.  I opened the series by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach. Last week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooowed thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so to hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Next week,  Justyna Stasiowska brings the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, Maria P. Chaves Daza explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter.  —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp


In October 1991 at the University of Arizona fall reading series, Gloria Anzaldúa read several poems and short stories–work now held at the UT-Austin Collection. Recently, I sat in my living room listening to the recording, feeling the buzz of her presence, the audible excitement in the Modern Languages Auditorium that Gloria Anzaldúa is about to speak. After some welcoming statements and a poem by Rita Magdaleno, inspired by Magdaleno’s reading of Borderlands, Anzaldúa takes the stage.

As part of her praxis, Anzaldúa makes space for queer people, both through her words and vocal tone.  She begins with a joke about her relationship with mics and takes the time to thank the organizers, especially for her cozy writer’s cottage. Anzaldúa dedicates the reading to Yolanda Leyva, her old roommate, telling Leyva she hasn’t forgotten her. Then, she announces her involvement in Sinister Wisdom and encourages women of color in the audience to contribute to this all-lesbian journal. She proceeds to laugh as she says, “lesbians of color only, sorry. [laughs]” Similarly, as she announces a collection she is editing with Francisco Alarcon about Chicana dykes and Chicano gay men, she says, “so if anybody is a Chicana dyke or a Chicano gay man, sorry about the rest of you” [laughs].  In the future she will also edit a book called Chicana Theory “Chicanas only (laughs), sorry.” Last, she acknowledges Chuck Tatum for changing the title of his annual from “New Chicano Writings” to “New Chicana/o Writings” and for allowing for Spanish and Spanglish Tex-Mex when he first wanted pieces in English. Anzaldúa takes the opportunity to recognize and promote the work of Chicana/o lesbian and gay writers by demarcating several publications exclusive to their work. This exclusivity is softened with giggles and laughs, affects, which help work through the tension(s) of recognition and exclusion caused by this explicit circumscription.

Her nervous, silly laugh–echoed in the laughs of her audience–reaches out to bring me into that space, that time. Her smooth, slow and raspy voice–her vocalic body–touches me as I listen.


Gloria Andzaldúa Image from the Tumblr of BiRadical

In their introduction to The Affect Reader, Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg assert affect’s “immanent capacity for extending […] both into and out of the interstices of the inorganic and non-living, intracellular divulgences of sinew, tissue and gut economies and the vaporous evanescenses of the incorporeal (events, atmospheres, feeling-tones)” (2).This sound recording of Anzaldúa’s poetry reading is an example of the immanent capacity this “incorporeal” event has to resonate and “sometimes stick to bodies and worlds” for listening audiences (1). Affect in its simplest form is “the name we give to those forces […] that serve to drive us to movement, towards thought and extension” and is “synonymous with force or forces of encounter (2).” My encounter with Anzaldúa’s (incorporeal) recording and the affect created through listening to her work lead me to ponder an answer to Seigworth and Gregg’s question:

How does a body marked in its duration by these various encounters with mixed forces, come to shift its affections (its being affected) into action (capacity to affect)? (2)

Toward an answer to this question, this post explores my relationship between Anzaldúa’s voice and my pedagogy, both her speaking voice as well as the interior voice she offers her audience, the way in which she opens spaces for queer women of color, and the resonances I find in both. As a queer woman of color who once felt isolated, Anzaldúa’s work has in many ways liberated me as a scholar, providing me with access to a voice for my own experiences. But Anzaldúa’s voice–its tactile material aspects and the way its sound builds affective connections between myself and other queers of color–strikes a chord in me that resonates without the need for language, across space and time. Her voice in the recording and in her writing sparks a recognition and validation of my being.

“Viva Gloria Anzaldúa,” acrylic on canvas, by Jake Prendez

Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” highlights a practice of visibility and exclusivity that enables Anzaldúa’s vocalic body to reach out to the queer community, and for us to “listen out” in return.  In “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres,” Bonenfant identifies the vocalic body as central to listening experience. He defines the vocalic body as an instrument producing vibrations that touch others, and a socially produced body positioned by environmental factors in a set of relations of power that produce identity. From these constitutive power relations the queer body listens for other queer bodies since “queer is a doing, not a being;” and listening is an active process of identifying the elements reaching out to queer people (78). Thus, Bonenfant, elaborates queer listening as

a listening out for, reach[ing] towards, the disoriented or differently oriented other […] listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. […] since hearing is feeling touch, this act of finding requires attunement to the touch of the vocalic bodies that caress queer. Sometimes, one has to listen very carefully to find them (78).

Queer listening then, takes seriously the power that bodies have to make sounds that reach out of the body to touch queer people and queer people’s ability to feel them.


CLICK on image of Gloria Andzaldúa to hear the recording I discuss from the University of Arizona, 10/23/91

CLICK on image of Gloria Andzaldúa to hear the recording I discuss from the University of Arizona, 10/23/91

On the University of Arizona’s recording, I can hear in Anzaldúa’s laugh a relish in her ability to take up space, to have before her an audience of more lesbian, gay and queer writers to contribute to her several anthology projects. Her voice is filled with a nervous excitement; after all, there is always a danger in being queer. Her laugh resonates as a physical instantiation of the risk of her own existence and of the other queers in the room. It is also a soothing mechanism; her laugh momentarily takes the edge off of some of her words as it reaches out, touches, and brings together queer people of color.

It is in this same way, that Anzaldúa’s work creates the space to speak and listen to queer people of color in many contexts.  I was first introduced to Anzaldúa in the classroom, specifically a feminist theory class. It was the first time I had heard a Chicana speak about being queer (or anyone who was mestiza for that matter); the classroom can be fraught with danger for students like me.  Cindy Cruz, in “Notes on Immigration, Youth and Ethnographic Silence,” argues that the classroom needs to be a space aware of the political climate that silences LGBTQ immigrant students (68). In the classroom, writers such as Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks all contribute to the growing canon of “politically undesired” identities (68). Without these writers, the queer-identified person may never be given a reason or a chance to speak about their experience as brown/black transgressive sexual subject. For this reason, when I teach I always read Anzaldúa aloud or ask members of the class to do so. Her powerful language, when vocalized, creates what Bonenfant would call a somatic bond that inhabits the students themselves, the classroom, and demands that we discuss homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and racism from the perspective of the atravesadx: the immigrant queer person of color. Reading Anzaldúa aloud creates what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacy: a way of imagining our own spaces in connection to others.” This is almost a pirate bond, a way of connecting the undesired and marginalized.

I have experienced this affective bond on multiple occasions, but one instance stands out.

In a Critical Race Theory class during my fifth year grad school, a fellow student, an immigrant woman of color, came out to the class by way of a seminar paper. As she read the paper she was shaking, her voice cracked, and tears rolled down her face. She was terrified of the consequences of “coming out,” however she found the courage to write and share her experiences. I remember how this reading touched me, the student’s voice interlaced with quotes explaining Anzaldúa’s concept of “homophobia”—the fear of going home– moved through the classroom and classmates: people leaned in, shifted in their seats, began doodling, some shook their heads in agreement in relation to coming out. I don’t think the student would have felt this was possible or appropriate if we hadn’t read Anzaldúa; the only lesbian writer on the syllabus.

The sound of Anzaldúa’s text creates a vocalic body for queer listening available to people who yearn for its touch.  Bonenfant posits this idea of yearning as inherently queer. Queer, as a form of doing, requires performative activity, always looking to find our own likenesses in others. Recognizing sound as touching the vocalic body, “queer listeners can perhaps catch some of the subtle variations in timbre that indicate a resonant ‘identity’ that wants to touch someone like us” (78). Anzaldúa’s various texts speak of concrete experience but the timbre of her voice–and the voice(s) reading her work–speaks to much more, a certain trembling that I feel in my own experience and that I wish to not only receive but to share with other queers of color also reaching out while also always receptive to the timbre of likeness.

Affective phenomena do not rely on textual or linguistic acts to communicate but instead are networked intensities of impulse that connect the individual body-mind to the bodies-minds of others. As Gregg and Seigworth explain,

Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. […] That is, affect is found in the intensities that pass body to body. In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed (2).

Anzaldúa incites in me a sense of intensity as the unnamable but unmistakable realities of my own experience resonate when I listen, while also lighting in me a force, an exertion of a “politically undesirable” self that I must assert in the world and in the classroom as a space of in- between-ness. Anzaldúa’s writing and the timbre of her voice are, to me, intensities and forces that go unnoticed, except by those who are yearning for them.  Listening to Anzaldúa in the classroom proliferates the possibility of queer listening encounters;  listening to Anzaldúa at home, in my living room, regenerates my belief in the impossible, in our ability to be in intimate spaces without homophobia: the fear of going home.

The Author, Maria P. Chaves Daza, reads Anzaldúa’s “An Accounting,” Borderlands/ La Frontera (43-44).
–for Gloria Anzaldúa and all the girls and women of color building feminist architectures and home.

Featured Image: Used with the generous permissions of artist Alma LopezSee more of her work at:

JS and AB are  grateful for the the editorial work of Tara Betts on early drafts.

Maria P. Chaves Daza is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at SUNY Binghamton University studying testimonios of undocumented women. They are a McNair Scholar and a Clifford D. Clark Fellow. They hold a B.A in Women’s Studies form NEIU in Chicago and a Master’s in Philosophy from the Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture (PIC) Program (SUNY Binghamton).

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

Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz”-Johannes Brandis

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice-Yvon Bonenfant

“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson

Could I Be Chicana Without Carlos Santana?-Wanda Alarcón

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

The Eldritch Voice: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography

Weird Tales CoverWelcome to the last installment of Sonic Shadows, Sounding Out!’s limited series pursuing the question of what it means to have a voice. In the most recent post, Dominic Pettman encountered several traumatized birds who acoustically and uncannily mirror the human, a feedback loop that composes what he called “the creaturely voice.” This week, James Steintrager investigates the strange meaning of a “metallic” voice in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, showing how early sound recording technology exposed an alien potential lingering within the human voice. This alien voice – between human and machine – was fodder for  techniques of defamiliarizing the world of the reader.
I’ll leave James to tell us more. Thanks for reading!

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

A decade after finding itself downsized to a dwarf planet, Pluto has managed to spark wonder in the summer of 2015 as pictures of its remarkable surface features and those of its moon are delivered to us by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. As scientists begin to tentatively name these features, they have drawn from speculative fiction for what they see on the moon Charon, giving craters names including Spock, Sulu, Uhuru, and—mixing franchises—Skywalker . From Doctor Who there will be a Tardis Chasma and a Gallifrey Macula. Pluto’s features stretch back a bit further, where there will also be a Cthulhu Regio, named after the unspeakable interstellar monster-cum-god invented by H. P. Lovecraft.

We can imagine that Lovecraft would have been thrilled, since back when Pluto was first discovered in early 1930 and was the evocative edge of the solar system, he had turned the planet into the putative home of secretive alien visitors to Earth in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1931, “The Whisperer in Darkness” features various media of communication—telegraphs, telephones, photographs, and newspapers—as well as the possibilities of their manipulation and misconstruing. The phonograph, however, plays the starring role in this tale about gathering and interpreting the eerie and otherworldly—the eldritch, in a word—signs of possible alien presence in backwoods Vermont.

In the story, Akeley, a farmer with a degree of erudition and curiosity, captures something strange on a record. This something, when played back by the protagonist Wilmarth, a folklorist at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, goes like this:

Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (219)

The sinister resonance of a racial epithet in what appears to be a foreign or truly alien tongue notwithstanding, this story features none of the more obvious and problematic invocations of race and ethnicity—the primitive rituals in the swamps of Louisiana of “The Call of Cthulhu” or the anti-Catholic immigrant panic of “The Horror at Red Hook”—for which Lovecraft has achieved a degree of infamy. Moreover, the understandable concern with Lovecraft’s social Darwinism and bad biology in some ways tends to miss how for the author—and for us as well—power and otherness are bound up with technology.

weirdtalesThe transcription of these exclamations, recorded on a “blasphemous waxen cylinder,” is prefaced with an emphatic remark about their sonic character: “A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH” (219-220). The captured voice is further described as an “accursed buzzing which had no likeness to humanity despite the human words which it uttered in good English grammar and a scholarly accent” (218). It is glossed yet again as a “fiendish buzzing… like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species” (220). If such a creature tried to utter our tongue and to do so in our manner—both of which would be alien to it—surely we might expect an indication of the difference in vocal apparatuses: a revelatory buzzing. Lovecraft’s story figures this “eldritch sound” as it is transduced through the corporeal: as the timbral indication of something off when the human voice is embodied in a fundamentally different sort of being. It is the sound that happens when a fungoid creature from Yuggoth—the supposedly native term for Pluto—speaks our tongue with its insectile mouthparts.

Yet, reading historically, we might understand this transduction as the sound of technical mediation itself: the brazen buzz of phonography, overlaying and, in a sense, inhabiting the human voice.

For listeners to early phonographic recordings, metallic sounds—inevitable given the materials used for styluses, tone arms, diaphragms, amplifying horns—were simply part of the experience. Far from capturing “the unimaginable real” or registering “acoustic events as such,” as media theorist Friedrich Kittler once put the case about Edison’s invention, which debuted in 1877, phonography was not only technically incapable of recording anything like an ambient soundscape but also drew attention to the very noise of itself (23).

For the first several decades of the medium’s existence, patent registers and admen’s pitches show that clean capture and reproduction were elusive rather than given. An account in the Literary Digest Advertiser of Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone, explains the problem:

telegraphoneThe talking-machine records sound by the action of a steel point upon some yielding substance like wax, and reproduces it by practically reversing the operation. The making of the record itself is accompanied by a necessary but disagreeably mechanical noise—that dominating drone—that ‘b-r-r-r-r’ that is never in the human voice, and always in its mechanical imitations. One hears metallic sounds from a brazen throat—uncanny and inhuman. The brittle cylinder drops on the floor, breaks—and the neighbors rejoice!

The Telegraphone, which recorded sounds “upon imperishable steel through the intangible but potent force of electromagnetism” such that no “foreign or mechanical noise is heard or is possible,” of course promised to make the neighbors happy not by breaking the cylinder but rather by taking the inhuman ‘b-r-r-r-r’ out of the phonographically reproduced voice. Nonetheless, etching sound on steel, the Telegraphone was still a metal machine and unlikely to overcome the buzz entirely.

In his account of “weird stories” and why the genre suited him best, Lovecraft explained that one of his “strongest and most persistent wishes” was “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Lovecraft put to work a technology that was rapidly becoming commonplace to introduce a buzz into the fabric of the everyday. This is the eldritch effect of Lovecraft’s evocation of phonography. While we might wonder whether a photograph has been tampered with, who really sent a telegram, or with whom we are actually speaking over a telephone line—all examples from Lovecraft’s tale—the central, repeated conundrums for the scholar Wilmarth remain not only whose voice is captured on the recorded cylinder but also why it sounds that way.

auxetophoneThe phonograph transforms the human voice, engineers a cosmic transduction, suggesting that within our quotidian reality something strange might lurk. This juxtaposition and interplay of the increasingly ordinary and the eldritch is also glimpsed in an account of Charles Parson’s invention the Auxetophone, which used a column of pressurized air rather than the usual metallic diaphragm. Here is an account of the voice of the Auxetophone from the “Matters Musical” column of The Bystander Magazine from 1905: “Long ago reconciled to the weird workings of the phonograph, we had come to regard as inevitable the metallic nature of its inhuman voice.” The new invention might well upset our listening habits, for Mr. Parson’s invention “bids fair to modify, if not entirely to remove,” the phonograph’s “somewhat unpleasant timbre.”

What the phonograph does as a medium is to make weird. And what making weird means is that instead of merely reproducing the human voice—let alone rendering acoustic events as such—it transforms the latter into its own: an uncanny approximation, which fails to simulate perfectly with regard to timbre in particular. Phonography reveals that the materials of reproduction are not vocal chords, breath, labial and dental friction—not flesh and spirit, but vibrating metal.

Although we can only speculate in this regard, I would suggest that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was weirder for readers for whom phonographs still spoke with metallic timbre. The rasping whisper of the needle on cylinder created what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky was formulating at almost exactly the same time as the function of the literary tout court: defamiliarization or, better, estrangement. Nonetheless, leading the reader to infer an alien presence behind this voice was equally necessary for the effect. After all, if we are to take the Auxetophone as our example—an apparatus announced in 1905, a quarter of a decade before Lovecraft composed his tale, and that joined a marketplace burgeoning with metallic-voice reducing cabinets, styluses, dampers, and other devices—phonographic listeners had long since become habituated to the inhumanity of the medium. That inhumanity had to be recalled and reactivated in the context of Lovecraft’s story.

dictaphoneTo understand fully the nature of this reactivation, moreover, we need to know precisely what Lovecraft’s evocative phonograph was. When Akeley takes his phonograph into the woods, he adds that he brought “a dictaphone attachment and a wax blank” (209). Further, to play back the recording, Wilmarth must borrow the “commercial machine” from the college administration (217). The device most consistent with Lovecraft’s descriptions and terms is not a record player, as we might imagine, but Columbia Gramophone Company’s Dictaphone. By the time of the story’s setting, Edison Phonograph’s had long since switched to more durable celluloid cylinders (Blue Amberol Records; 1912-1929) in an effort to stave off competition from flat records. Only Dictaphones, aimed at businessmen rather than leisure listeners, still used wax cylinders, since recordings could be scraped off and the cylinder reused. The vinyl Dictabelt, which eventually replaced them, would not arrive until 1947.

Meanwhile, precisely when the events depicted in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are supposed to have taken place, phonography was experiencing a revolutionary transformation: electronic sound technologies developed by radio engineers were hybridizing the acoustic machines, and electro-acoustic phonographs were in fact becoming less metallic in tone. Yet circa 1930, as the buzz slipped toward silence, phonography was still the best means of figuring the sonic uncanny valley. It was a sort of return of the technologically repressed: a reminder of the original eeriness of sound reproduction—recalled from childhood or perhaps parental folklore—at the very moment that new technologies promised to hide such inhumanity from sensory perception. Crucially, in Lovecraft’s tale, estrangement is not merely a literary effect. Rather, the eldritch is what happens when the printed word at a given moment of technological history calls up and calls upon other media of communication, phonography not the least.

I have remarked the apparent absence of race as a concern in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but something along the lines of class is subtly but insistently at work in the tale. The academic Wilmarth and his erudite interlocutor Akeley are set in contrast with the benighted, uncomprehending agrarians of rural Vermont. Both men also display a horrified fascination with the alien technology that will allow human brains to be fitted into hearing, seeing, and speaking machines for transportation to Yuggoth. These machines are compared to phonographs: cylinders for storing brains much like those for storing the human voice. In this regard, the fungoid creatures resemble not so much bourgeois users or consumers of technology as scientists and engineers. Moreover, they do so just as a discourse of technocracy—rule by a technologically savvy elite—was being articulated in the United States. Here we might see the discovery of Pluto as a pretext for exploring anxieties closer to home: how new technologies were redistributing power, how their improvement—the fading of the telltale buzz—was making it more difficult to determine where humanity stopped and technology began, and whether acquiescence in this changes was laudable or resistance feasible. As usual with Lovecraft, these topics are handled with disconcerting ambivalence.

James A. Steintrager is a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He writes on a variety of topics, including libertinism, world cinema, and auditory cultures. His translation of and introduction to Michel Chion’s Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise will be published by Duke University Press in fall of 2015.

Featured image: Taken from “Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color” in NASA’s New Horizons Image Gallery, public domain. All other images courtesy of the author.

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


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

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

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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