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On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

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

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

SO! Reads: Daniela Cascella’s F.M.R.L. (Finding Materials for Remembering and Listening)

"The Meaning of It All" by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

SO! Reads3

***

Before I read F.M.R.L., I didn’t know Daniela Cascella or her work. I hadn’t read her first book or her blog or her Tweets; I hadn’t seen any exhibits she had curated or attended a reading. Instead, the words in her book introduced us.

Here’s how she was introduced, here in this exploration of how sound and writing intertwine:

  • A wanderer, traveling the globe to meet friends, attend conferences, read books (and more books, and more books)
  • An archivist, saving physical and digital boxes of sounds and words and quotes, all blended with her own notes and ideas
  • A listener, noticing the sounds of words as much as their meanings
  • A cave-explorer, digging ever deeper through layers of earth to find echoes of what has been buried—which is another way to say a wanderer, an archivist, a listener

How odd to meet someone through words alone, not knowing what she sounds like, what she would say if we met.

***

“you know you’re a Mac user when…” by Flickr user Nick Normal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve never told anyone this: I sometimes imagine descendants and friends sifting through my digital archives after I die, meeting me through my words and my collections.

“Collections” is too organized of a word, really. I save files, sometimes in clearly named folders, but just as often not: pdfs, docs, txts, sometimes containing my own words and sometimes others’. On 3.5” floppies, CDs, DVDs, in the cloud. Poems, essays, quotations, scans—I don’t even know what these people from the future might find, how these archives would introduce me to them.

Once, my first year in college, a girl I liked called me to complain about her boyfriend, and her words were so layered with meaning that I opened up a window of Word and started typing her words, verbatim. She was going fast, though, so when I got behind, I just hit enter and kept going. She must have heard the keyboard clicking, but she never said anything.

I haven’t read that file for years, but it must be somewhere in the cave of my collections.

***

png;base6445b4d03606ce2862A colleague sees Cascella’s F.M.R.L. on my desk. His face scrunches as he tries to make sense of the letters on the cover.

“It’s a book I’m reviewing,” I offer.

“No, it’s just. . . .” He reads the subtitle. “I thought it was a play on the phrase FML or something.”

I know how he feels. Every time I see the book sitting there, new words and letters come to mind. I eventually heard it as ephemeral, but always after others:

Formerly. Fame, really. Female roll. F my real life. FM Radio, Live!

Here’s what it actually says on the cover: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound. When my colleague sees that subtitle, he experiences the tiny pleasure of “getting it,” of seeing what the letters “really” stand for, of feeling like these words now make sense in the way they were supposed to.

But inside the book, you quickly learn that in 1926, Louis Aragon also re-voiced ephemeral as F.M.R.L., but the letters stood for something different to him: frenzy, madness, reverie, love.

Cascella takes it further: the next page lists the other things that F.M.R.L. could stand for: footnotes, false starts, frenzy, and so on, each list of words ending in delightful ellipses, which seem to say, “And what does this F mean to you?”

“The Letter F for Flickr and Friends” by Flickr user Denise Womack-Avila, CC BY-NC 2.0

***

From Cascella’s blog: “The title is ‘F.M.R.L.’: not ‘Ephemeral’. I chose this title because of its ambiguity and because it calls to be sounded. I chose it to draw the attention toward language as material; to stay away from any literal understanding of sound as ephemeral, as if unworthy of attention; and to prompt other departures from and into words and letters.”

***

A note I wrote in the margin: “So much of this book is an explanation of this book.”

Consider:

“I have a habit with listening. It makes me write even when I don’t now [sic?] what to say. . .” (9). Do you hear? she seems to say. I’m writing, and you’re listening in, but I’m not sure what it will mean to you, or to me. That’s how sound works.

“Each cluster of words is not created anew but cast from words that were before, recalled from archival layers. I don’t want to explain them, but rearrange them and hand them over to you before they expire” (118). Do you hear? she continues. Will you listen? Can’t you make meanings without my explanations?

“SOUND: You should not have called me Sound, but told me of the sounds in s-s, addressed me with incoherent stories and undecipherable acoustic traces, signifiers whose sense is uncertain and that yet mean” (2).

That last is from the dialogue that opens the book: SOUND and WRITER are “walking in a circle, anticlockwise and diametrically opposite” as they try to figure each other out. Or, really, as Writer tries to figure out Sound, trying to grasp and understand and explain. Sound seems ok living in the moment, singing.

As I read the rest of the book, I kept remembering that tension between writing and sound. It’s infused in the pages of the book like strong tea.

And I kept thinking of myself, as a writer and teacher of writing who is also a listener and a maker of sounds. I’m dedicated to writing and sounds, both. Maybe Cascella’s solution is the best: to love words, to read and memorize and archive them, but to never stop at what they signify, to always attend to the sounds they suggest as well, the puns of meaning hidden throughout all languages.

***

By writing about this book, I feel I’m writing against some of its core ideas.

Writing about is so descriptive, explaining, clarifying, cleaning up, setting the table for dinner because something important is going to happen soon, so wash your hands. When I write about, I take notes in the margins, but not the kind of notes where I exclaim in wonder or shock, or record my emotional reactions. Instead, when I’m in writing about mode, I jot marginal notes that summarize, explain, organize, keep track of everything.

An example: here’s a list of the page numbers where I noticed Cascella using the word ephemeral:

png;base6411b89775124d11c5

Ah, now I have some ownership over this book. Ah, now I am on my way to understanding it.

This is how I feel when reading/annotating poetry: a little embarrassed when I annotate only to explain and clarify, but pleasantly engaged when I annotate my gut reactions, often written in exclamation points or question marks or stars, doubled or tripled when I really mean it.

***

This is a book that asks to be read all in one sitting, even though that’s impossible.

At least it’s impossible for me. Cascella’s soundings (which seems like a better word than writings) are thick with images and quotations and sudden jumps, which seems to suggest a slow attitude, like reading a poem or two a day instead of powering through an entire book as if it were a long sandwich.

But the echoes (and this is very much a book about echoes, and caverns, and geological layers) threaten to disappear from memory if you wait too long to read the next chapter. My longer reading sessions were always rewarded with subtle connections: a circle, an incantation that I’m sure she mentioned just a few pages back, hold on while I find it.

So maybe the best solution is to read it once quickly, attending to the echoes, and then again slowly, attending to the layers. It’s like watching Twin Peaks, like exploring a museum.

“The Lion Man” by Flickr user storebukkebruse, CC BY 2.0

An example: in the final section of the book, she describes The Lion Man, a 40,000-year old sculpture. “I cannot even figure the meaning of 40,000 years ago,” she writes (113). I pause, look up, and bite the end of my pen. I’ve heard these lines before, I realize. Did I read ahead, when I first got the book in the mail? Or did I read about The Lion Man online somewhere, maybe when Thomas Rickert is discussing the Lascaux paintings in his book Ambient Rhetoric? Was I thinking about it when singing R.E.M.’s “Texarkana” the other day in the shower, how the numbers in that song grow from 20,000 to 30,000 to 40,000?

But then, later, I skim through my marginalia and realize I was wrong: Cascella herself told this story, back on page 14, using the same words.

I’m tempted to explain to you the effect of this verbal echo, from sculpture to exhibit to Cascella’s archival notes to Cascella’s book, written in two different places. But right now, I have page 15 open, held down under my arms as I type, and there’s a sentence there that I double-starred, and to me, double-stars are rare and important. I starred: “Perhaps their [ancient art objects’] final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (15).

So I’ll hold off my explaining, my desire to clarify. But I’ll add another echo from Cascella: toward the end of the book, she writes the same sentence—”Perhaps their final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (120)—but this time, the pronoun their is describing sounds, bottled up and kept in the room of an enchanted child. On this page, I once again double-starred the line, even though I had forgotten that I had read those words before in this book. They affected me the way sounds affect me, with the slam and the flood of standing in the ocean, which then pulls back before repeating the same slam and the same flood.

***

“Lascaux II – Hall of the Bulls” by Flickr user Adibu456, CC BY-NC 2.0

“[W]e can compare the designed use of Lascaux as afforded by its spatial, acoustic, and material properties to musicians’ attempts to get a certain sound by recording in a specific environment.” —Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being

***

I recently taught Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying in a creative nonfiction class. I reread it on a plane ride to Florida and decided to write about my experience on the plane ride home. But when I opened my laptop, I found myself writing like Slater in little ways: invented scenes mixed into my nonfiction, insistent addresses to the reader (like “you have to believe me on this point”), sentences that drifted on, connected only by comma splices, there’s one there, they’re lovely sometimes, they were everywhere in my sentences.

What’s more, this echoing didn’t feel like a choice. Slater’s writing had become part of my internal archive, bubbling up unbidden.

***

Scholar of writing Peter Elbow emphasizes the importance of teaching students to trust their mouth and ears when making punctuation decisions. He admits that comma splices often feel right when you’re trusting the sound of your words, that there’s a connectedness you want with a comma that you don’t get with a pesky semicolon or period or even a lively dash.

“But,” he reminds us—and I hear some sad music in the background as I write this—”many teachers and readers who know the rules are unforgiving about run-ons.”

Do you see how Cascella is in my brain, connecting my mental archives with synthesizer cables? I can’t stop thinking about the rules of writing and the rules of sound, and how they might sound together if I just try plugging this here. . . .

png;base64e4d2dea8d8cd18ac

“Modular Synthesizer Desktop HDR” by Flickr user Peter Georges, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

In one of Cascella’s most fascinating chapters, she describes an experiment she performed on herself: “I learned by heart every week a paragraph from a new text that mentioned sounds, re-wrote it from memory the following week, and interpolated the missing parts with other words heard beside myself—an experiment in layered memory, as it corrodes and actualises my physical and emotional archives while I search for more voices: an echo cast into shape, to fold my enchantment with words round, and back dissolving, and again” (69).

She shares three examples, three “casts,” of these rewritings from memory. And I’ll be honest: when I first read this part of the book, I was excited at the idea of looking up the originals, of trying to catch exactly how much she did and didn’t remember—of reinscribing the authority of an ur-text, instead of allowing the echoes of the her-text envelope me.

So I looked one up. (I mean, Google Books.) And I compared. And I saw similarities and differences. Yep, there they were.

And out of nowhere, I felt ashamed. I felt like I was trying to break her experiment, her art, her practice. So I’ll leave it up to you: read her rewritings from memory—it’s chapter 11, I’ll wait while you find it—and decide for yourself if you want to know how much she changed or didn’t change from the “originals.” Decide for yourself how right/write or wrong it is to play with someone else’s texts. Decide for yourself if this is really how we do everything everyday anyway.

***

Slater’s Lying, the book I read on the plane, mixes truth and lies, a fact that aggravates some readers and enchants others. The thing is, she tells you exactly what she’s doing—I mean, the book is called Lying, and her first chapter, in its totality, is “I exaggerate.” Plenty of other obvious clues remind us that fact and fiction have been put in the blender of this book.

Cascella tells us what she’s doing, too. Eventually, you start to realize that explaining this book is one of the themes of the book—but no, explaining is the wrong word. More like inviting you to enjoy it the way she wants you to enjoy it.

Sometimes that invitation is rather direct: “I seek to reclaim the intermittent incoherence in listening as it urges to move through its residual presence into a marginated writing that is not a site of clarity but edge, horizon, fugue” (24). Bam. Pretty clear.

But often, she’s more invitational, writing in the second person, just to you: “Try and listen to them, one after the other, forget about genealogies and canons, listen to those vocal intertwinements and rhythmic mosaics” (30).

Then it’s back to her again, how she “want[s] words to follow the untidy movements in listening, to be mud and magma” (48), how she’s “drawn to listening to [sounds], to reinvent, recall and divine them in words” (68).

Her, you, her, you. Me. A swing, a dance, a recursive circle between telling and inviting.

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“Blah” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

“The moment I begin to write, sound is no longer sound” (39).

***

One reason Cascella writes this way: she’s frustratred with work on sound that ignores the affordances of sound. At sound art conferences, in discussions about sound art—they all seem to be so filled with words and explanations that she couldn’t help but explode words onto these pages in a different mode, like she does in this book.

“[C]oming back from yet another conference on sound,” she writes, “I would feel like I no longer knew how to speak, listen or write” (23). She’s tired of artists who make complex work but then use “trite and worn-out expressions that say no more” when describing it (55), “where sound becomes an apology” (108).

So this book uses sounds, and there’s no accompanying apology. Sorry.

***

I’m sitting outside at an academic conference for scholars in rhetoric and composition. I’ve seen some boundary-breaking stuff today, but I want more.

“I mean, sometimes I don’t want to have to tell the audience everything,” I say. I’m at a table with friends. We’re in Florida, so we’re drinking obscenely bright cocktails. “I want to throw ideas and sounds at them and let them connect the dots. These are smart people, right?”

Paul nods and pauses before speaking. We just met, so I think he’s trying to give good advice in as gentle a way as he can. “Yes. They’re smart. But there’s obviously a line, too, right? If you’re creating scholarship, you have to make moves that signal that you’re part of that community, that conversation. Otherwise, you’re making. . . .”

“You’re making art. Right?”

“Right. And art is important, and I agree that we need more artistic sensibilities in our field. But it’s not scholarship.” He pauses. “You have to play the game, too.”

I nod. I think he’s right. Sometimes, in some places, I need to play the game.

But not always. And in different fields, different modes of expression beyond the scholarly, the game is different, you can see it if you peek around the corner into other rooms. And if you break down walls, it’s all one big room. Which is exciting and terrifying and I want it all, all the ideas and methods and all the sounds.

“Sound six points” by Flickr user Sarah Barker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But still, you want the point. You want to know what this book will do for you, for your art, for your scholarship.

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But ok. You’re not here to be moved. (Are you? I hope you are.) But if you’re not: what will propel your ideas, what will inspire your work after reading Cascella, what the take-aways are:

  • “Writing away from sound” as a different way to “write about sound” (44). That is, instead of explaining, to let the nature of sound itself inspire the kinds of work you do.
  • “Writing Sound” as an “encounter,” as “transcience” (54).
  • Acknowledging our archives and inviting them to the forefront of our writing, even when those encounters are messy or confusing.
  • Considering what we’re really doing in our art/theory/writing/sounding. Cascella says she’s not “a writer, a theorist, a critic” but “a handler of words, a listener, a reader” (90). Who are you? Who am I?

But how can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

***

“I’m cut through by voices I don’t want to explain” (72).

Kyle D. Stedman is assistant professor of English at Rockford University, where he teaches first-year composition, digital rhetoric, and creative nonfiction. His work explores rhetorics of sound and music, intellectual property, and fandom. He tweets at @kstedman and hosts the podcast Plugs, Play, Pedagogy.

Featured image: “The Meaning of It All” by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

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

Living with Noise — Osvaldo Oyola

“Sound Studies: A Discipline?”: Sound Signatures Winter School, Amsterdam, January 2014 — Melle Kromhout

Sounding Out Podcast #36: Anne Zeitz and David Boureau’s “Retention” — Aaron Trammell

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

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Sounds of the City forumEditor’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.

"Promenade des artistes"

“Promenade des artistes”

"Light up the city with your idea"

“Light up the city with your idea”

The amphitheater

The amphitheater

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.

Quartier des spectacles

Map

Office tower

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.

Irving Layton exhibit

Irving Layton exhibit

Gilles Vigneault exhibit

Gilles Vigneault exhibit

Kondiaronk exhibit, with graffiti

Kondiaronk exhibit, with graffiti

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]

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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.

Strike graffiti

Strike graffiti

May Day poster

May Day poster

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.

Code of Ethics

Code of Ethics

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.

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Acknowledgements:

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.

Fermé

Fermé

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