Editor’s Note: This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
We kicked things off three weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Two weeks ago, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Last week, regular SO! writer Regina Bradley discussed the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.
Today’s post comes from CFP winner Lilian Radovac, who shares with us a critical photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford
Updated with edits as of 12:28 pm EST
October, 2013. I’m waiting for the 80. It’s already dark and bitterly cold for fall, and the bus is predictably late. As the line of people waiting lengthens, traffic rushes past on President-Kennedy and north along Jeanne-Mance, punctuating the larger roar of rush hour in Montreal.
Suddenly, a woman’s voice lifts up out of the din. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying at first, but then a single phrase escapes from the thrum of traffic: “…freedom and democracy…” I look around, trying to place the sound. It’s gone. Several minutes later, the voice rises again: “Tell us again about freedom and democracy!” This time, my ears get a lock on the words and I leave my place in the line to follow them to their source.
My feet bring me to the Promenade des artistes, a slim triangle of concrete that separates President Kennedy Avenue from De Maisonneuve Boulevard, and the sounds of Mégaphone. The promenade is the temporary home of the audiovisual installation produced by the multimedia studio Moment Factory, co-sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada and the Quartier des spectacles partnership. The installation is composed of three zones: to the west, a small outdoor amphitheater arranged around a large red megaphone; across the street, the University of Quebec at Montreal’s science pavilion, which doubles as a projection screen; and to the east, housed in a series of “event vitrines,” an audio exhibition of recordings by notable Quebec speakers who have “shaped public space in Montreal with their words.”
According to the accompanying press kit, Mégaphone is inspired by London’s Speaker’s Corner and Montreal’s interwar tradition of popular assemblies. Its stated goal is to “bring the art of public speaking back into the city.” It’s designed as an interactive experience, which encourages visitors to take to the stage during designated open mic periods and, by speaking into the megaphone, to “light up the city” with their ideas. Their speeches are first acoustically amplified, then processed by voice recognition software and projected onto the façade of the science building, which becomes a canvas for randomly generated keywords. Mégaphone is also timed to coincide with the run-up to Montreal’s November 4th municipal election, and features a program of scheduled speakers that includes an appearance by the city’s mayoral candidates.
As I wander through the empty amphitheater, I find myself thinking that it’s a strange place for a sound installation. The Promenade des artistes is sandwiched between UQAM’s science campus and the northern border of Place des Arts, a Lincoln Center-style performing arts complex that occupies several city blocks. Jane Jacobs would have called this a “dead place,” lost as it is between a set of bicycle lanes and the science building’s indoor food court, which draws pedestrian traffic away from the open space of the street. On the day of my visit, I’m the only person there. Beyond the Promenade des artistes lies the larger Quartier des spectacles, an ongoing culture-led regeneration project which, in an effort to cement the city’s “brand” as a creative city, has concentrated Montreal’s outdoor cultural activities into a single, sprawling site. Traces of the working-class neighborhood it displaced peek out from behind construction fences, quietly attesting to the area’s industrial past.
Still following the voice, I walk towards the line of event vitrines, where seven audio exhibits map the aural contours of an imagined community made real. The speeches on display tell a story of Quebec’s emergence from its colonial past, when the province’s French-speaking majority was dominated by the Catholic church and a minority Anglophone elite. Each voice, in its way, speaks to a period of enormous social transformation fuelled by the dream of Quebec’s independence: Irving Layton delivers a lecture from an amplified podium; Gilles Vigneault sings “Gen du pays” from a stage at Parc Mont-Royal; Pierre Bourgault gives a firebrand speech at the Third Congress of the Parti Québécois. Only the seventeenth century Wendat Chief Kondiaronk remains eerily mute, his voice buried in the memoirs of his colonial French counterparts.
Poet Michèle Lalonde’s voice, however, dominates the space of the exhibit. It’s noticeably higher in pitch than the drone of traffic, and when it rises to meet the words “freedom and democracy” it pierces the low rumble of passing buses and trucks, filling the husk of the surrounding streets. The poem she reads is well known in Quebec, and the version on display here is central to the province’s history and identity as a nation. Recorded at La nuit de la poésie in 1970, the poem was first read at a 1968 benefit performance to support imprisoned members of the Front de libération du Québec, one of whom was Pierre Vallières, the author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique.
Inspired by Vallières’ memoir, “Speak White” is a double appropriation: of the English admonition to Francophones to abandon their mother tongue and, simultaneously, of the revolutionary potential of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, with which the most militant factions of the Quebec independence movement aligned themselves. It is, as Sean Mills has observed, an uncomfortable alliance in a province that struggles to recognize its own racism and status as a settler colony, but in the poetic space of Lalonde’s recitation the words still shudder with subaltern rage.
[Read English translation]
The term “megaphone” is something of a misnomer. The voices of participating speakers are amplified using a hand-held microphone that is connected to a stationary loudspeaker, which actually makes the megaphone more of a rudimentary public address system. It’s an important distinction, since the aural uses of the megaphone are shaped above all by its portability. Megaphones are a mobile audio technology and therefore a nomadic one; like boomboxes and iPods, they’re designed to be easy to carry and to be used while moving from place to place. The public address system, by contrast, is rooted in space: the speaking subject is anchored to the microphone and to the apparatus of amplification, which is composed not only of cables and loudspeakers but also the architectural elements (podium, stage, seating) of the auditorium.
More importantly, the portable megaphone is intended to be used outdoors and in crowds. Thomas Edison’s acoustic megaphone, which he patented in 1878, was soon used at sporting events and to magnify the voices of political leaders at outdoor public events. By 1900, street hawkers began selling makeshift megaphones to the politicians’ audiences, and their wares contributed to a new and noisy public sphere. When the megaphone was married to the transistor and to battery power in the 1950s, the technology was seized by social movements around the world, which used it to appropriate and disperse the power of the individual public speaker. Among them were the student and labor unions that flourished in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which had opened up a space for the province’s democratization.
The year before Mégaphone opened, the promenades of the Quartiers des spectacles were crossed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of bodies that spilled out of Parc Émilie-Gamelin, where students and their supporters gathered for the nighttime demonstrations that became a hallmark of the Quebec student strike, or printemps érable. Each night at about 8:30 pm, we set off on marches that had no planned route and no final destination, walking for hours along streets that we claimed with nothing but our voices and the feet that carried them along. If you arrived late you could find the #manifencours on Twitter, or you could listen for the sounds of the crowd’s chants and the police helicopters that hovered constantly overhead, keeping large swaths of the downtown core awake until the early morning hours.
When the Liberal government attempted to break the strike with the reviled Bill 78, which required protest organizers to submit itineraries to the authorities in advance, the night marches dovetailed with a sudden explosion of casserole protests, which coalesced around autonomous popular assemblies organized at the neighborhood level. Within days, demonstrators fanned out across the city as roving bands of casserolières set off from Villeray, Mile End, Hochelaga, St-Henri and even staid, sleepy Outremont, erupting into cacophonous clangs and cheers as we found each other at the borders of our quartiers and merged into ever larger assemblages. If a city can light up with sound, then that is what happened here in Montreal.
These echoes of the printemp érable form the acoustic backdrop of Mégaphone, and the sounds of the installation are designed to bleed into listeners’ memories of the strike. But Mégaphone is as much about the management of acoustic space as a celebration of its potential. Walking through the Promenade des artistes, I’m struck by a palpable but unintended theme: containment. The voices on display, already tethered to their microphones, are further limited by a series of overlapping spatial and temporal boundaries. The stage is accessible only on certain days and during designated hours, and then only when not reserved for previously scheduled speakers. Like the Quartier des spectacles that surrounds it, the installation is segregated from the lived spaces of the city, out of earshot of most residents and removed from the rhythms of their everyday. As if to belabor the point, speakers are bound by the Mégaphone “code of ethics,” which permits “no tolerance for aggressive, obscene or hateful speech, or for any behavior that is not consistent with respect for public order [emphasis mine].” Presumably, the code does not apply to the Quebeckers whose commitment to radical politics earned them a place in Mégaphone’s pantheon of speakers.
With its endlessly wandering marches and casseroles, the printemps érables was willfully inconsistent with respect for public order and its tactics reflected the anti-authoritarian impulses of the Quebec student movement. Simply by walking together, noisily and spontaneously, we recreated our city as a utopian space in which citizens, not governments, would chart their own course. By contrast, Mégaphone constrains the mobility of political speech, fencing it off in time and space and stripping it of its collective character. In doing so, it subjects the auditory space of the public sphere to what Don Mitchell terms a process of liberalization, drawing it away from the field of autonomous action and back under the stewardship of the state.
Philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve (better known as Anarchopanda) made this connection explicit when he and a group of fellow activists took to the Mégaphone stage to denounce municipal bylaw P-6, which, like Bill 78, requires protesters to inform the police of their activities under threat of arrest and massive fines. While Bill 78 (later Law 12) was repealed after a national outcry, P-6 remains in effect and its enforcement is in large part responsible for ending the strike and for the continuing suppression of public protest in Montreal.
As I walk back towards the bus stop, my fingers numb inside my mittens, I consider how much Mégaphone feels like a memorial to the city’s noisy public sphere, which, for the moment at least, is safely confined to the past.
Sincere thanks to Jonathan Sterne, Erika Biddle, Magdalena Olszanowski, Ted Rutland, Liz Miller and the Tapas Gals for the conversations that contributed to this post.
Featured image: by Lilian Radovac
Lilian Radovac is a writer, organizer and doctoral candidate in communication studies at McGill University. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the cultural history of noise control in New York City, a chapter of which, “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” was published in Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies (John Hopkins, 2012). Her work has also appeared in Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest”-Jonathan Sterne
“Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations”-Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
En Espanol siguiente.
Post by Nancy Morales. Translation by Martha Unzueta-Perez, firstname.lastname@example.org
My recent experiences—both inside and outside the academy—as a U.S. citizen with an “ivy league education” make it crystal clear to me that I am a brown mujer who will always be criminalized by the state regardless of how many “privileges” I acquire or believe to have obtained through my “hard work.” I cannot continue my path toward self-determination without acknowledging that the privileges I acquire will not guarantee my protection, let alone my liberation. In other words, people of color are perpetually vulnerable regardless of their education, wealth, and/or social status. In “Speaking in Tongues: A letter to Third World Women Writers” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Gloria Anzaldúa explored this notion in her letter to third world women writers, where she expressed that we have never had any privileges and we never will (165). Anzaldúa makes this statement not to foreclose our dreams but rather to enable our liberation; in essence, we have nothing to lose by imagining other ways of being. If we were to perform as the imagined ideal U.S. citizen under the hetero-normative standards (racial, gender, and sexuality, including sonic markers of citizenship), it would always be at the expense of displacing each other. Privilege is too often misunderstood as a form of protection from displacement and a claim of worthiness as human beings.
Amplifying and extending the resonance of Anzaldúa’s powerful declaration, my scholarship is personally healing because I seek to understand the very modes of knowledge production: how meaningful research is undertaken and actualized, particularly by and for immigrant communities, by exploring how these groups help us imagine new and yet unknown territories wherein our differences are valid. Los Jornaleros del Norte, Radio Ambulante and other immigrant rights folks provide examples of imagining other ways of being, including the production of sonic markers of citizenship that are not state-sanctioned. In other words, they are doing the work of knowing themselves better in order to respect and understand each other. Often, some of the most crucial knowledge production happens through the materiality of sounds and the material impacts of listening practices, both dominant and resistant.
Citizenship is (mis)understood as a privilege that guarantees protection by the nation-state. The current nation-state’s dominant discourse of national security creates draconian federal, state, and local legislation that belie immigrants’ differences. Rising anti-immigrant rhetoric attempts to homogenize both Latinas/os and immigrants as criminals. In other words, such discourse is used to justify the nation-state as the reference point for recognizing a legitimate community. The Department of Homeland Security’s agenda deems who may be tolerable and who is deportable, even if you are a U.S. citizen. Distinguishing, for example, between exceptional students who “deserve to be here” and those who do not, creates a hierarchy of immigrants. Consequently, public discourse over the worthiness of recognition and belonging creates limitations that categorize immigrants in restrictive ways. Similarly, attacks on bilingual education and ethnic studies attempt to displace Latinos as foreign and “alien” within US territories.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?” provides sonic examples of discrimination to reveal how citizenship is further constructed through sound. The dominant listening ear, as Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman coins, reveals:
how racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through popular culture. As a result dominant groups use sound with impunity to forge “reasonable suspicion” about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them (5).
More importantly we learn that sonic markers of citizenship are just as unreliable as biological/physical ones i.e. racial profiling. One may have an accent or speak Spanish but that doesn’t prove or disprove their citizenship status. However, what we understand more prominently is the various ways brown bodies are displaced through structural racism such as sonic markers of citizenship.
In order to more fully understand the legacy of the U.S. conquest of Latin America and the Caribbean—of which contemporary anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant rhetorics are an extension—we must recognize how colonizers use language as a weapon that can shame, humiliate and further colonize people of color. bell hooks testifies to this notion in “Teaching New Worlds/New Words” from Tongue-tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education: “standard English is not speech of exile. This is the language of conquest and domination in U.S.” (255). We often begin to think that we can acquire privileges of upward mobility, class, citizenship or race as our source of protection, particularly through linguistic “passing” (Anzaldúa,“Linguistic Terrorism” Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 217). However, as Anzaldúa explains in “How to Tame a Wild-Tongue” from Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza: “Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself” (81). Deborah Vargas’s 2012 book Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (University of Minnesota Press) also explores these issues and comes at an important moment to continue to learn how the power to push the boundaries of heteronormative standards can be understood in Chican@-Laitn@ culture. By dis-placing the dominance of standard English and acknowledging the multiplicity of languages they speak and seek to listen to, Chican@s-Latin@s can begin to acknowledge their wealth of knowledge as meaningful instead of meaningless.
Meaningful Sounds: Dignity and Respect
It is important, then, to recognize the critical work that immigrant rights communities create that push the boundaries of the dominant listening ear, particularly through the inclusion of the vocal materialities of people of color. Such immigrant rights groups mobilize the sounds of immigrant voices not as a neoliberal way of “proving their worthiness” but, like Sebastien de la Cruz, the San Antonio-area ten-year-old who sang the national anthem at game three of the 2013 NBA finals in his mariachi outfit, they use sound to create and amplify fair representations that vocally resist the dominant binaries of foreign/citizen, illegal/legal.
Los Jornaleros offer the people their talent and their love with their music of resistance and struggle
Los Jornaleros del Norte is a musical group that formed out of the struggles of day laborers. They are part of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) where they realize their cultures and languages as forms of resistance. They sing songs in Spanish at protests, rallies, on the radio and in all other public spaces.
In this clip, Los Jornaleros interject their voices to denounce deportations, wage theft and to energize (im)migrant families’ wishes and desires. Through live performances and Internet circulation, this group amplifies the actual voices of people directly affected by immigration enforcement policies and refuse to be silenced by the dominant American listening ear.
In addition, organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and Education for Fair Consideration (E4FC) use various organizing tools to amplify the voices of immigrant communities. Alongside and in solidarity with E4FC, a network of artists, writers, and filmmakers, including Favianna Rodriguez, actively fight for just immigration reform using sound. These artists are crucial to the defense and protection of immigrant rights and for changing dominant discourses about immigrants as unworthy. For example, La Santa Cecilia, an L.A. band committed to social justice issues, collaborated with NDLON to produce a song in Spanish wherein the music video showcases people affected by un-sound immigration policies.
“ICE/El Hielo”—a multilingual play on the acronym of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—combines visual imagery of immigrants with a multiciplicity of langages, musical styles and vocal tones to help us understand the trauma and pain that immigrant communities endure on a daily level due to the dominant discourse of national security that homogenizes Latina/os and (im)migrant communities as less than human. [Note: The song can also be heard on Sounding Out!’s annual free downloadable mix for 2013. Click here—JSA]
Practices like La Santa Cecilia’s encourage Latinas/os and immigrants—who are often spoken about instead of directly spoken to— to participate in public spaces, including digital spaces. Digital spaces, I believe, can become potential safe spaces that allow Latina/os and immigrant communities to produce their own sounds and to therefore make an alternative claim to belonging that is not predicated upon speaking “Standard” English and/or being “real” American citizens. Through digital outreach, E4FC encourages undocumented youth to share their immigrant stories sonically connect immigration issues on a global scale.
While musical interventions are effective, I use the remainder of this post to address the more nuanced ways in which Latina/o and (im)migrant communities add the sound of their voices to global discourses through storytelling, music, and language(s) in beautiful (though sometimes painful), telling ways. Immigrant communities produce and circulate sounds meaningful to them to contextualize and reveal their differences within Latina/o communities. In other words, they push the boundaries of citizenship through methods of self-organizing that sounds dignity and respect for each other. I argue that sharing their perspectives and stories—here and elsewhere on the Internet—captures more than just a sound bite. The sound of “everyday voices” mobilized against—and remarking on—the nation-state’s attempts to mark immigrant communities as vulnerable exerts an impactful and profoundly material agency.
For instance, Voces Móviles (VozMob), a collaboration between the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California/ Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) uses SMS technology to document immigrant workers’ voices online.
VozMob enables day laborers and other immigrant communities to use their cell phones as a tool to share their perspectives and become narrators of their own stories via text, images and video. Users upload their content directly to the VozMob webpage where you can read, see, and/or listen their daily experiences. In this video clip Luis Valentán shares his perspective as a day laborer about immigrant rights.
Rejecting the label of a “Dreamer,” Valentán sounds differences within immigrant communities by encouraging others to recognize that they are “Doers.” He also pushes the boundaries of an immigrant rights framework that values and respects people who strive for a better life in the face of limited opportunities.
Radio Ambulante also creates a digital space for the voices of people from Latin America and the U.S. It is the first Spanish-language radio program that tells stories where culture and belonging have no borders. The programmers broadcast various thematic episodes highlighting stories that explore differences by using speakers’ primary language(s). This approach, as heard in the November 2013 episode “la palabra prohibida,” enables diverse listeners to hear people who share, and more importantly, complicate notions about cultures, origins, and perceptions of belonging.
In “la palabra prohibida,” the broadcasters make no attempt to profile the episode’s participants as fitting the “good” or “bad” dichotomy of the immigrant narrative. Instead, Radio Ambulante creates a sonic medium that juxtaposes voices to make human complexity material for its listeners.
Click to play Radio Ambulante, “la palabra prohibida” episode
It is crucial to continue to understand the power of our voices, housed in their expression and their sound. (Im)migrant communities have a wealth of knowledge in their lived experiences, and they tell it well through these digital and public spaces, showing us how knowledge is produced not only through words and sounds, but in the powerful relationship between them. By further amplifying immigrant voices in new sites, both “traditional” and digital, I continue the important work they have begun, helping us to realize where and when the power of our sounds resonates as a catalyst to mobilize people beyond perceived borders, where we all have the right to migrate and the right to just be.
Featured Image by Flickr User Claudia A. De La Garza, 5-6-06
Nancy Morales is a faculty lecturer for the Latina/o Studies minor in the Center for the Study for Culture, Race and Ethnicity (CSCRE) at Ithaca College. Morales has research interests in U.S third world feminist theory, immigration policy, labor relations, critical ethnic studies, cultural and sound studies. She focuses on how Latina/o workers and immigrant workers have been excluded from the ranks of the working-class because of their racial, cultural, gender and immigration-status differences. She received a B.A. in Social Psychology from UC Santa Cruz and a Master’s from Cornell’s Institute for Public Affairs with a minor in Latina/o Studies. Morales has done research for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) in order to further explore how race and gender become necessary for understanding workers’ struggles within the Immigration, Labor, and Civil Rights Movements.
Óyeme Voz”: Comunidades Latinas y Inmigrantes de EE. UU. Resuenan Ciudadanía y Pertenecer
Post by Nancy Morales. Translation by Martha Unzueta-Perez, email@example.com
Mis experiencias recientes—tanto dentro como fuera de la academia—como una ciudadana de Estados Unidos con una educación “Ivy League” lo hace muy claro que soy una mujer de color que siempre va ser criminalizada por el estado sin importar cuantos “privilegios” adquiero o creer haber obtenido a través de mi “trabajo duro.” Yo no puedo continuar mi camino hacia la autodeterminación sin reconocer que los privilegios que adquiero no me garantizaran mi protección y mucho menos mi liberación. En otras palabras, las personas de color son perpetuamente vulnerables sin importar su educación, riquezas y/o estatus social. En “Speaking in Tongues: A letter to Third World Women Writers” en This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Gloria Anzaldúa explora esta noción en su carta a escritoras del tercer mundo, donde expreso que nunca hemos tenido ningún privilegio y nunca lo tendremos (165). Anzaldúa hace esta declaración no para anular nuestros sueños sino más bien para hacer posible nuestra liberación; en esencia, no tenemos nada que perder al imaginar otras formas de ser. Si fuéramos a actuar como el imaginado ciudadano ideal de Estados Unidos bajo las normas hetero-normativas (racial, genero y sexualidad, incluyendo señales sónicas de la ciudadanía), siempre seria al costo de desplazarnos el uno al otro. El privilegio a menudo es mal entendido como una forma de protección de desplazamiento y una reclamación de merecimiento como seres humanos.
Amplificar y extender la resonancia de la poderosa declaración de Anzaldúa, mi trabajo académico me ayuda personalmente a sanar porque yo busco a entender los modos de producción de conocimiento: cómo la investigación significativa es emprendida y actualizada, particularmente por y para las comunidades de inmigrantes, al explorar cómo estos grupos nos ayudan a imaginar nuevos y aún desconocidos territorios donde nuestras diferencias son validas. Los Jornaleros del Norte, Radio Ambulante y otras personas de los derechos de inmigrantes proporcionan ejemplos de imaginarse otras formas de ser, incluyendo la producción de señales sónicas de la ciudadanía que no son sancionados por el estado. En otras palabras, están haciendo el trabajo de conocerse mejor para respetarse y entenderse. Frecuentemente, alguna de la producción de conocimiento más importante ocurre a través de la materialidad de los sonidos y los impactos materiales de las prácticas de escuchar tanto dominante y resistente.
La ciudadanía es (mal) entendida como un privilegio que garantiza la protección por la nación-estado. El discurso dominante actual de la nación-estado de la seguridad nacional crea una legislación draconiana federal, estatal y local que desmienten las diferencias de los inmigrantes. La creciente retórica anti-inmigrante intenta homogeneizar tanto los latinos e inmigrantes como criminales. En otras palabras, tal discurso es utilizado para justificar la nación-estado como un punto de referencia para reconocer una comunidad legitima. La agenda del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional considera quien puede ser tolerable y quien puede ser deportado, aún si usted es un ciudadano estadounidense. Distinguir, por ejemplo, entre los estudiantes excepcionales que “merecen estar aquí” y aquellos que no, crea una jerarquía de los inmigrantes. Consecuentemente, el discurso publico sobre el merecimiento de reconocer y pertenecer que categorizan a los inmigrantes en maneras restrictivas. Similarmente, los ataques contra la educación bilingüe y los estudios étnicos intentan desplazar a los latinos como extranjeros y “alien” en los territorios estadounidenses.
El artículo “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?” de Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman proporciona ejemplos sónicos de discriminación para revelar como la ciudadanía se construye aún más a través del sonido. El oído dominante, como Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman revela:
Como las normas racializadas sobre el sonido existen y circulan a través de la cultura popular. Como resultado grupos dominantes utilizan el sonido con impunidad parar forjar una “sospecha razonable” sobre el estatus de la ciudadanía de cualquier persona que se escucha diferente a ellos y que crea, consume y aprecia los sonidos de manera diferente a ellos (5).
Más importante nosotros aprendemos que las señales sónicas de ciudadanía son tan poco fiables como los biológicas/físicas, es decir discriminación racial. Uno puede tener un acento o hablar español pero eso no demuestra su estatus de ciudadanía. Sin embargo, lo que nosotros entendemos de manera más prominente es las diferentes formas en que la gente de piel morena es desplazada a través del racismo estructural tal como señales sónicas de la ciudadanía.
Para entender más completamente el legado de la conquista de EE.UU. de America Latina y el Caribe—de cual la retórica contemporánea anti-terrorista y anti-inmigrante son una extensión—nosotros debemos reconocer cómo los colonizadores utilizaron el lenguaje como un arma que pude avergonzar, humillar y colonizar aun más a la gente de color. bell hooks atestigua a esta noción en “Teaching New Worlds/New Words” del Tongue-tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education: el ingles estándar no es el habla de exilio. Este es el lenguaje de conquista y dominación en los EE.UU.” (255). A menudo empezamos a pensar que podemos adquirir privilegios de movilidad hacia arriba, clase, ciudadanía o raza como nuestra fuente de protección, en particular “pasando” lingüísticamente (Anzaldúa, “Linguistic Terrorism” Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 217). Sin embargo, cómo Anzaldúa explica en “How to Tame a Wild-Tongue” de Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza: “Hasta que yo pueda tener orgullo en mi lenguaje, no puedo tener orgullo en mi mismo. Hasta que yo pueda aceptar como legitimo el español chicano tejano, tex-mex y todos los otros idiomas que hablo, No puedo aceptar la legitimidad de mí mismo” (81). Deborah Vargas’s 2012 libro Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (University of Minnesota Press) también explora estas cuestiones y llega a un momento importante para continuar a aprender como el poder de empujar los limites de las normas hetero-normativas pueden ser entendidas en la cultura chincan@s-latin@s. Al descolocar el dominio del ingles estándar y reconocer la multiplicidad de los lenguajes que hablan y buscan escuchar, chican@s-latin@s pueden comenzar a reconocer su riqueza de conocimiento como significativo en vez sin sentido.
Sonidos Significativos: Dignidad y Respeto
Es importante, luego, reconocer el trabajo crítico que las comunidades de derechos de inmigrantes crean que empuje los límites del oído dominante, particularmente a través de la inclusión de las materialidades vocales de la gente de color. Tales grupos de derechos de inmigrantes movilizan los sonidos de las voces de los inmigrantes no como una forma neoliberal de “demostrar su merecimiento” pero, como Sebastien de la Cruz, el niño de diez años de edad de San Antonio que canto el himno nacional para el tercer juego de la final 2013 del NBA en su traje de mariachi, ellos utilizaron el sonido para crear y amplificar una justa presentación que vocalmente resiste binarios dominantes de extranjero/ciudadano, ilegal/legal.
Los Jornaleros ofrecen a la gente su talento y su amor con su música de resistencia y lucha
Los Jornaleros del Norte es un grupo musical que fue formado de las luchas de los jornaleros. Ellos son parte del National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) donde ellos realizan sus culturas y lenguajes como formas de resistencia. Ellos cantan canciones en español en las protestas, en mítines, en el radio y en todos otros espacios públicos.
En este clip, Los Jornaleros interponen sus voces para denunciar las deportaciones, el robo de salarios y energizar los deseos de las familias in(migrantes). A través de actuaciones animadas y la circulación de Internet, este grupo amplifica las voces actuales de la gente directamente afectada por las políticas de inmigración y se niegan a ser silenciados por el oído dominante Americano.
Además, organizaciones como el National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) y Education for Fair Consideration (E4FC) utilizan varias herramientas de organización para amplificar las voces de las comunidades de inmigrantes. Junto y en solidaridad con E4FC, una red de artistas, escritores y cineastas, incluyendo Favianna Rodríguez, luchan activamente para una reforma de inmigración justa utilizando el sonido. Estos artistas son cruciales para la defensa y protección de los derechos de inmigrantes y por cambiar los discursos dominantes sobre inmigrantes que son vistos sin dignidad. Por ejemplo, La Santa Cecilia, una banda local en Los Ángeles comprometida a la cuestiones de justicia social, colaboro con la organización NDLON para producir una canción en español en el que el video musical muestra las personas afectadas por las políticas poco acertadas.
“ICE/El Hielo”—una obra de teatro multilingüe sobre las siglas de la Oficina de Inmigración y Aduana d EE.UU. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)—combina una imagen visual de inmigrantes con una multiplicidad de lenguajes, estilos musicales y tonos vocales para ayudarnos a entender el trama y dolor que las comunidades de inmigrantes perduran a diario debido al discurso dominante de la seguridad nacional que homogeniza a las comunidades latinas y (in)migrantes como menos que humanos. [Editor’s Note: La canción también puede escucharse y descargarse en el mix anual gratuito de Sounding Out! para el 2013. Haga clic aqui—JSA]
Prácticas como la de La Santa Cecilia animan a los latinos e inmigrantes—que a menudo se habla de ellos en vez de directamente hablar con ellos— a participar en espacios públicos, incluyendo espacios digitales. Los espacios digitales, yo creo, pueden convertirse en potenciales espacios seguros que permite a las comunidades latinas e inmigrantes a producir su propio sonido y por lo tanto hacer una reclamación alternativa a pertenecer que no se predica al hablar en ingles “estándar” y/o ser un ciudadano americano “real.” A través del alcance digital, el E4FC anima a la juventud indocumentada a compartir sus historias de inmigrantes sónicamente para conectar los temas de inmigración a un nivel global.
Mientras intervenciones musicales son efectivas, yo utilizo el resto de este articulo para hablar sobre las formas más matizadas en la cual las comunidades latinas e de (in)migrantes agregan el sonido de sus voces a discursos globales a cuentos, música y lenguaje(s) en maneras bellas (y a veces dolorosas) de contar. Las comunidades inmigrantes producen y circulan sonido significante a ellos para contextualizar sus diferencias entre las comunidades latinas. En otras palabras, ellos empujan los límites de la ciudadanía a través de métodos de auto-organización que se escucha con dignidad y respeto para uno al otro. Yo sostengo que compartir sus perspectivas y historias—aquí y en otros lugares en el Internet—captura más que una picadura de sonido. El sonido de “voces cotidianas” movilizadas contra—y comentando sobre—los intentos de la nación-estado para marcar las comunidades inmigrantes como vulnerables causa una impactante y profunda agencia material.
Por ejemplo, Voces Móviles (VozMob), una colaboración entre La Escuela de Annenberg en Universidad del Sur de California (University of Southern California’s Annenberg School) y el Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (Institute of Popular Education of Southern California – IDEPSCA) utiliza la tecnología SMS para documentar la voces de los trabajadores inmigrantes en la Internet.
VozMob permite a los jornaleros y otras comunidades inmigrantes a utilizar sus teléfonos celulares como una herramienta para compartir sus perspectivas y convertirse en narradores de sus propias historias vía texto, imágenes y video. Usuarios suben su contenido directamente a la pagina Web VozMob webpage donde uno puede leer, ver y/o escuchar sus experiencias diarias. En este videoclip Luis Valentán comparte su perspectiva como un jornalero sobre los derechos de inmigrantes.
Al rechazar la descripción de “Soñador,” Valentán sonora las diferencias entre las comunidades inmigrantes al animar a otros a reconocer que son “Hacedores.” El también empuje los limites de un marco de derechos de inmigrantes que valora y respeta a las personas que luchan por una vida mejor que enfrentan oportunidades limitadas.
Radio Ambulante también crea un espacio digital para las voces de la gente de América Latina y de EE.UU. Es el primer programa de radio en español que cuenta las historias donde la cultura y pertenecer no tienen fronteras. Los programadores transmiten varios episodios temáticos destacando historias que exploran diferencias mediante el uso del lenguaje primario. Este enfoque, como se escucho en el episodio de noviembre 2013 “la palabra prohibida,” permite a oyentes diversos a que escuchen a personas que comparten y, más importante, complican las nociones sobre culturas, orígenes y percepciones de querer pertenecer.
Radio Ambulante, “la palabra prohibida”
En “la palabra prohibida,” los locutores no hacen ningún intento a perfilar a los participantes del episodio como una en la dicotomía “buena” o “mala” de la narrativa de inmigrantes. En cambio, Radio Ambulante crea un medio sónico que yuxtapone las voces para hacer material de complejidad humano para sus oyentes.
Es crucial continuar a comprender el poder de nuestras voces, que se encuentran en su expresión y su sonido. Las comunidades (in)migrantes tienen una riqueza de conocimiento en sus experiencias vividas y lo dicen bien a través de estos espacios públicos y digitales, enseñándonos como el conocimiento se produce no solo a través de palabras y sonidos sino en la poderosa relación entre ellos. Al amplificar aún más las voces inmigrantes en nuevos sitios, tanto “tradicional” y digital, yo continuo la importante labor que han iniciado, ayudándonos a realizar donde y cuando el poder de nuestros sonidos resuenan como un catalizador para movilizar a la gente mas allá de las fronteras percibidas, donde todos tenemos el derecho a migrar y el derecho de ser.
Nancy Morales es profesora en la especialización de estudios latinos en el Centro para el Estudio de Cultura, Raza y Etnicidad (Center for the Study for Culture, Race and Ethnicity – CSCRE) en el Colegio Ithaca (Ithaca College). Morales tiene intereses de investigación en la teoría feminista del tercer mundo de EE.UU., política de inmigración, relaciones labores, estudios étnicos críticos, estudios culturales y de sonido. Ella se centra en cómo los trabajadores latinos y trabajadores inmigrantes han sido excluidos del los rangos de la clase obrera por sus diferencias raciales, culturales, del genero y el estatus inmigrante. Ella recibió su licenciatura en psicología social de la Universidad de California Santa Cruz y su maestría del Instituto de Negocios Públicos de la Universidad de Cornell (Cornell University) con una especialización en estudios latinos. Morales ha realizado investigaciones para la Red de Organización Nacional de Jornaleros (National Day Laborer Organizing Network – NDLON) y para la Alianza Nacional de Trabajadores Domésticos (National Domestic Workers Alliance -NDWA) para poder explorar más a fondo cómo la raza y el género son necesarios para comprender la lucha de los trabajadores dentro de la inmigración, labor y el movimiento de derechos civiles.
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Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Last week, the series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a Slave. This week, Caitlin Marshall treats us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence. –Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Harriet Beecher Stowe: novelist, anti-slavery agitator, antebellum DJ? In 1852, Stowe penned one of the most famous works of fiction in American history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A sentimental work, the novel dramatized the lives of fictional slaves searching for freedom. Eager to achieve a national hearing of her anti-slavery agenda, Stowe’s novel required a voice that could “speak” in morally efficacious tones against slavery. To stage this voice, one that hinged on a sonic appeal to inter-racial sympathy, Stowe sampled and mixed two powerfully persuasive, if diametrically opposed, cultures of speaking and listening in the United States.
The first of these cultures revolved around revolutionary American understandings of political rhetoric. According to Jay Fliegelman, this tradition of republican oratory drew upon 18th century philosophical principles to recast Declaring Independence as a speech act. In his Declaration, Jefferson announced the ‘self-evidence’ of an American people by performing a nationally specific common sense in two important ways. First, he displayed a breed of American moral feeling in direct contrast to that of the colonial British; second, he did so through an oratorical style that inaugurated a common, American modality for articulating and hearing truth. The felt and sounded show of a common ‘self’ evidenced Americans’ natural rights to independence, and installed a markedly white revolutionary acoustics of freedom.
Stowe’s second sample was a misappropriation of a new mode of hearing in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. As Sounding Out! Editor in Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued in “The Word and the Sound: Listening to the Sonic Colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative,” Douglass’s narrative was a direct attempt to bend and subvert what she terms “the sonic colour-line” (21). An acoustic schema that racialized sound and recruited the ear in black subjection, the sonic color line was epitomized by the republican oratorical tradition wherein meaning was linked to white articulation, and meaninglessness to black utterance, heard simply as ‘noise.’
Contrastingly, the reformed sonic model presented in the Narrative sought to position black sound as a site of meaning and resistance, and challenged Northern readers to question and remap both their hearing of such sounds and their ethical relationship to black meaning. Jonathan Cruz, in Culture on the Margins, terms this new mode of hearing “ethnosympathy” and defines it as an “interpretive ethos of pathos” (3). Importantly, Stoever-Ackerman highlights that Douglass did not seek to cast black sound as “a sentimental appeal to truth,” but “rather [as] a challenge to dominant notions of truth produced and disseminated through the ear” (31). Stowe however, did not hear Douglass’s message so subtlety, and like many Abolitionists, was quick to commandeer black sound for a white social justice platform wherein it served as the innately moral (and romantically racialized) sound of sentimental suffering. Thus, it was this mishearing of the strains of black resistance that Stowe remixed with the white tones of revolutionary independence to spin a brand new soundtrack for the antebellum era. I term this soundtrack the acoustics of passing.
A vocal melodrama (a literal speech act) in black and white, the acoustics of passing was an amalgamated grid of sonic intelligibility invested in the political power of voice that encapsulated the seemingly antithetical (to white America) tones of republican virtue and black experience, and was deployed by Stowe to narrate the fantastical passage of African Americans from bondage to freedom. Composed first through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and propagated later in her paternalistic relationships with black female artists, Stowe’s acoustics was ostensibly a powerful tool in the fight against slavery, but was ultimately used by the author to recapitulate her whitewashed vision of America.
Stowe’s acoustics appear in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in novel’s first passing scene: George Harris’s Spanish masquerade. Stowe frames this scene prominently with the fugitive slave advertisement that George’s master, Mr. Harris, has posted. Many scholars have pointed to the way in which the visual organizes the practice of passing, but it is important to note that in this scene, the oral/aural is equally emphasized as key to a passing performance; Mr. Harris, for one, notes in his advertisement that George’s keen eloquence and literacy are the fugitive’s distinguishing features. Moreover, the advertisement seems to warn, in combination with George’s European complexion, he is rendered seemingly indistinguishable from a white man. Mr. Harris expects George to attempt such a passing ruse, and therefore clearly identifies the marks that will testify to George’s slave status. George
is deeply scarred on his back and shoulders; has been branded in his right hand with the letter H (95).
Contrary to Mr. Harris’ predictions, however, George enters the roadhouse disguised as a Spanish gentleman. To pull off this guise George darkens his skin and hair. In the essay, “Spanish Masquerade and the Drama of Racial Identity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Julia Stern argues that George’s third term identity, “nonblack, nonwhite,” is radical because it upsets the logic of the antebellum racial dichotomy. However, we should note that this dark masquerade allows Stowe to symbolically align George, a mixed race man, with both his black and white parentage. In darkening his skin George pays tribute to his slave mother, while by adopting a well-known Anglican slaveholding surname, Henry Butler, George references his absentee father. Thus, the Spanish disguise is Stowe’s reminder that George is passing for who he claims to be.
Yet before George can break from the tavern on his way towards Canada, he must reveal himself to his former employer, Mr. Wilson, who, George believes, has recognized him. In the long speech that follows, George must convince Mr. Wilson to discard a juridical sense of right in favor of an ethical one. Carefully arranged through Stowe’s acoustics of passing, George’s oratory presents equal parts white republican sentiment and black pathos, sentimentally persuading Wilson (and a listening America) of the moral justice in permitting him to pass to freedom.
Well aware that her readers at home would have been reciting the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud, Stowe is careful score George’s speech for both sonic whiteness and blackness–leaving intertextual clues that act like dynamic musical notation to indicate how George’s performance should sound. To begin, Stowe spells out her source material for George’s speech by directly citing Jefferson’s “Declaration” in a footnote to George’s opening salvo. Stowe wants readers to hear George’s speech as the realization of the American Republican promise. Americans, Stowe argues, are in a state no better than the British of the 1770’s: like the tyrannical father/monarch King George, Americans are “deaf to the voice of justice & of consanguinity.” A lengthy address, George’s monologue is an account of the domestic crimes of slavery, and, like the Declaration, is a complaint of personal injury at the hands of a nation that has been as negligent in looking after its blood kin as has George Harris’s father. Concluding with the passionate exclamation, “I’ll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe! You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!” (102), George’s Declaration claims the rhetorical, and therefore natural, rights that are his white, paternal inheritance.
The sonic difference in George’s speech however, is the pathos of it, the “tears, and flashing eyes, and despairing gesture,” here meant to index the orator’s audible black suffering. Though setup as racially inscrutable in this scene, Stowe takes great pains to ‘out’ George’s hidden blackness. Not only does Stowe symbolically darken George to cite his mother’s race, but she draws attention to the black body through repeated citation of his scars. This figuration of speaking wounds was prevalent in the popular imagination of Stowe’s day, and represented the white fantasy that black speech was the ‘playback’ of slave experience as recorded in the grooves of the traumatized and marked black body. Frederick Douglass, for example, recounts in My Bondage and My Freedom that he was first introduced as a speaker to the Abolitionist lecture circuit as a “graduate from the peculiar institution…with my diploma written on my back!” (359).
Miraculously, at the climax of George’s sonically mixed oration, Mr. Wilson is overcome with a revised sense of justice, one consonant with George’s bid for freedom. In this overdetermined acoustic schema, Stowe aligns progressive white ethos and republican sentiment with the distinct sounds of black pathos, and positions any mode of hearing contrary to this inter-racial sonic sympathy as un-Christian, un-patriotic, and detrimental to the future of the Union.
Yet Stowe’s acoustics of passing is decidedly supremacist. To begin, George’s mixed sound is haunted by the specter of forced conception and familial alienation ubiquitous to slavery. Additionally, while Stowe deploys the acoustics of passing towards an anti-slavery platform, her sonic schema ultimately preserves the social and political function of whiteness. Thus, while George’s sonic blackness is essential for playing out the moral justice of Stowe’s cause, it is this same audible blackness that permits Stowe to ultimately write the political problem of inter-racial integration off to Liberia with the entire Harris family.
Herein is the problem of Stowe’s acoustics: its sonic inter-racial sympathy at once promised speakers of color the agency of a sounded path to freedom (that which George performs and narrates) while ultimately deploying white practices of containment. And Stowe indeed dramaturged the lives of several mixed race artists through these acoustics, most notably the Dramatic Reader, Mary Elizabeth Webb and the concert vocalist Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.
As I continue to investigate the careers of women of color like Greenfield and Webb, I think about how Stowe’s acoustics could have empowered and constrained their bids for resistance, rights and recognition.
Featured Image: “Representative Americans” Image of Harriet Beecher Stowe surrounded by characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1893, Remixed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Caitlin Marshall is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. A vocalist herself, Caitlin applies her practice-based knowledge of voice towards the study of what it meant to ‘sound American’ during the nation’s first independent century. Focusing on ‘Othered’ American vernaculars at the intersections of race, disability, gender, and ethnicity, her dissertation, ‘Power in the Tongue’: Crippled Speech & Vocal Culture in Antebellum America, takes seriously the metaphor of voice in American democracy, and works at the confluence of Performance, Sound, and Disability Studies to mobilize speech impairment as a broad material and theoretical category for investigating how American citizenship was established as an exclusionary vocal limit in the antebellum era.
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The critically acclaimed WNYC program Radiolab found itself embroiled in a controversy for its recent broadcast segment “Yellow Rain.” Released on September 24, 2012 as part of the episode entitled “The Fact of the Matter,” the 20 minute segment “Yellow Rain” recounted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of the Hmong by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao after the United States left Vietnam and the subsequent debates surrounding the chemical weapon called “yellow rain. The episode pitted the witnessing of Eng Yang, a survivor and documenter of the genocide—whom producer Pat Walters describes as the “Hmong guy” at one point—and his niece, award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang—referred to only as “Kalia” by hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad—against the research of university scientists and the relentless questioning of Krulwich.
Following the episode’s broadcast, many listeners and critics argued that Radiolab’s treatment of their the Yangs was Orientalist and unethical. Jea, writing on Radiolab’s “Yellow Rain” comment page suggested “Ms. Yang and her uncle were dismissed and even reduced to pawns in the larger scheme of RadioLab’s agenda.” Others, such as Bob Collins, writing for Minnesota Public Radio worried that “the story appeared […]to invalidate the Hmong loss and suffering in Laos.” Aaron, a commentor on Current Magazine’s coverage of the controversy called Radiolab’s coverage “inexcusable science, nothing close to journalism, and if only ‘a story,’ one that cements erroneous ideas in the minds of its listeners.” Kirti Kamboj, writing for Hyphen, a magazine dedicated to Asian American arts, culture, and politics, described the episode as “heartbreaking,” “utterly infuriating,” and an exemplar of “Orientalist, ethnocentric framing” designed to privilege Western knowledge.
From my perspective as a scholar of rhetoric, communication, and debate, to call Radiolab’s game rigged would be an understatement. The interview was not conducted on an even playing field and it smacks of a white Western privilege that the writers and producers failed to fully acknowledge even in their on-air discussion following the interview. Radiolab determined the questions, edited the exchange, and retained the capacity to both frame and amend the discussion (there is a debate concerning whether or not the Yangs knew the questions prior to the interview—this discussion can be found here, Radiolab’s response here , and answer to Radiolab’s claims here.).
In addition to the whether or not Radiolab misrepresented the Yangs and downplayed the mass murder of the Hmong in their pursuit of “truth,” I find that this episode is important for the insights it contains into argumentative invention, journalism, and new media ethics, all sparked by the grain of Kalia Yang’s voice in response to Krulwich’s questions. I argue that Kalia’s sounded distress functioned as what I call a “sonorous objection,” instigating the critique of Radiolab’s tactics. Borrowing from argumentation theory, an objection describes an argument that draws the context of an argumentative exchange into view. Research on objections has most often examined the use of visual images, such as the controversy sparked by the photographs coming from of Abu Ghraib. In this short piece, I will wed prior research on objections with theories about sound to argue that Kalia used the grain of her voice to call out—and call into question—the opaque assumptions that governed the interview and its reception.
“Yellow Rain” recalls the Hmong genocide following the Vietnam War. The Hmong were recruited by the CIA to help disrupt supply lines to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). After American troops withdrew, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao persecuted the Hmong for aiding the US. The communists attacked the Hmong, eradicating villages and blanketing populations with a sticky, yellow substance. Attempting to escape systemic annihilation, the Hmong receded into the jungle, where many still reside today. Some of the Hmong that were able to escape brought with them leaves covered in the yellow stuff, which they gave to local aid workers. These workers then shipped the samples back to the United States where labs diagnosed it as a chemical agent known as “yellow rain.” A concerned Reagan administration reasoned that only the Soviet Union had the technical capacity to produce such a weapon. As a result, Reagan restarted the Unites States’ then-dormant Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) program. Radiolab’s hosts, Abumrad and Krulwich take issue with this narrative; troubling the assertion that yellow rain was in fact a chemical weapon and insinuating that Reagan used the Hmong incident as an excuse to start producing CBWs.
“Yellow Rain” progressed like many other segments of Radiolab. Abumrad and Krulwich began by recounting the story of the Hmong from the perspective of retired CIA agent Merle Prebbenow and the Yangs. Next, they interview Harvard professor Matthew Meselson and Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, using their testimony to suggest that “yellow rain” was actually bees releasing their bowels en masse after hibernation. Then Abumrad and Krulwich brought this provocative hypothesis to the Yangs. Here, the show intensifies, the music fades, and Krulwich begins to question the Yangs, “as if he were a cross-examining attorney” according to Bob Collins, blogger for Minnesota Public Radio. As the interview goes on, Krulwich’s tone increasingly stiffens as he repeats a similar line of questioning: “But, as far as I can tell,” Krulwich asserts, “your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.”
Kalia’s voice beings to fray:
My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done [This is Kalia’s transcription of her statements, from Hyphen].
Kalia reflects on her experience with Radiolab in a post for Hyphen, characterizing the interview as more of an interrogation. I add an additional layer: that of the deliberative exchange. While it is certainly true that there was a great discrepancy between the interlocutors, both parties adduced reasons for their respective positions producing an argumentative encounter that challenged the norms that govern discourse and language.
In the above quotation, Kalia claims that Radiolab ambushed her and their meeting occurred under a pretense of telling the Hmong story. She then rhetorically situates her interlocutor within a broader history of silencing the Hmong. While it may be tempting to look at the Radiolab interview as an isolated event, Kalia’s arguments cast it as another iteration of the Hmong being discounted. We cannot, in other words, cleave “Yellow Rain” from a history of oppression.
Additionally, Kalia chides Radiolab’s concerns, calling them a “semantics game.” Here, both the use of semantics and game is instructive. Semantics speaks to the trivial nature of Krulwich’s questions. His focus on yellow rain and its dubious status as a chemical weapon obfuscates the fact that weapons were used against the Hmong. Or, to reformulate Kalia’s argument, Radiolab is trading purely in language and ignoring the material reality of her people. The invocation of game is also important because it suggests that Krulwich does not understand the historical gravity of his actions. And, perhaps more importantly, that Radiolab is not taking the incident seriously. These arguments coalesce to trouble the assumption that the interview –and the inclusion of the Yang’s voices–was fair, equal, and inclusive. This culminates in Kalia wresting her agency from this context by ending the interview.
However, an exclusive focus on language ignores the intersecting effects of histories–personal, interpersonal and social–sounds, cultures, moods, and affects. Indeed, the grain of Kalia’s voice operates as an affective vector. Teresa Brenna, in The Transmission of Affect, explains, vocal rhythm “is a tool in the expression of agency, just as words are. It can literally convey the tone of an utterance, and in this sense, it does unite word and affect”(70). Different vocal inflictions invoke both biographic and cultural histories, as the body attempts to discern meaning. Political theorist William Connolly, in Neuropolitics, calls this space between sound and meaning the virtual register of memory. Virtual memory describes a background below conscious recollection that discerns sensory data, like sound, and renders it intelligible (24). We often see this register at work when we watch a movie, as different scenes are stored below the level of reflection and are called up to interpret a scene. Virtual memory is recursive, folding in present experiences to help guide future encounters and using previous encounters to make sense of the present. Thus the rhythm of Kalia’s voice guides the entrainment of affect by drawing on listeners’ previous encounters with similar sounds. This process infuses listeners’ perceptions and resulted in what commentators called “painful” and “emotional.”
While Kalia’s words claim Radiolab ambushed her and her uncle, the grain of her voice draws the unequal distribution of power into sharp relief. Her vocal cracks resonated with listeners, imparting an intense, visceral experience and provoking an outcry. One listener, Mathew Salesses sums up the response: “Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.” It demonstrates that Kalia was through reasoning with Krulwich; his use of Western science to discredit indigenous knowledge made sincere argumentation impossible. Her cry was not only an act of resistance, but also an objection that troubled Radiolab’s claims of journalistic excellence, highlighting vexing issues with editing and story construction.
In argumentation parlance, Kalia’s voice operated as an “objection.” In “Entanglements of Consumption,” argumentation scholars Kathryn M. Olson and G. Thomas Goodnight (1994) explain how an objection functions within an argumentative encounter: “absent a common agreement as to the means of reaching consensus, debate over the ‘truth’ of an asserted claim is set aside, in whole or in part, and challenges are raised as to the acceptability of the communicative context within which the argument is offered as secured”(251). That is, when deliberation occurs within a shared context—agreed upon values, goals, rules, and facts—the argument progresses smoothly. However, when there is a disjunction between interlocutors, such as in “Yellow Rain” where both parties disagree on basic facts, hegemonic beliefs take precedence. Objections function to evidence this differential, making both parties (and often an audience) aware of this gap. As such, objections are not concerned with refuting previous claims—the way that Kalia states neither she nor her uncle are interested in having a semantic debate—but questions the very context—and the conditions–of the debate itself.
Despite Radiolab’s attempts to fetishize her voice to evidence the “fact of the matter” and the “complicated nature of truth,” Kalia’s voice retained her agency. Through the invocation of the sonorous objection, she eluded capture and demonstrated the unequal terrain of the interview. Her pain enveloped the listener, leaving a resonance that Radiolab listener Cecilia Yang called “painful to listen to” in her personal blog. As Olson and Goodnight remind us, objections arise in a repressive context, when people are denied a voice. For Kalia, histories of racism and colonialism infused the argumentative encounter, making it impossible for her to “reason,” a framework she exposes as a stacked game. As such, her sonorous objection functioned to evidence this disparity, while directing the listener’s attention to her cause. Just as the pictures of prisoners coming out of Abu Ghraib incited outrage about U.S. imperialism and violence, Kalia’s sonorous objection provoked a conversation about the Hmong, Radiolab, and the ethics of journalism in the new media age.
Justin Eckstein is a doctoral candidate and former director of debate at the University of Denver. His work explores the intersection of listening, affect, and argumentation. Justin’s writing has appeared in Argumentation & Advocacy,Relevant Rhetoric, and Argumentation in Context. Currently, he is writing his dissertation on the micropolitics of podcasting in the post-deliberative moment.