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.
Editor’s Note: This is Liana, Managing Editor for Sounding Out!, introducing you to this special fall installment of our series “Tune Into the Past,” penned by our very own Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. We at SO! have been waiting for months for Jennifer to share with us a brand-spanking new blog post! She’s back in action this month with a post that asks readers to listen to the cultural landscape that foregrounded Norman Corwin’s success as a radio writer and producer, inspired by her research on her book manuscript on the sonic color-line. In particular, Jennifer addresses the notion of colorblindness and its very real repercussions on radio artists and producers of color in the 1940s. Want to catch up on our series on Norman Corwin? Check out this summer’s posts by radio scholars Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo. If you’re all caught up, open your ears and your eyes then (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain). –LMS
Almost every day, I hear someone on the radio hailing America as the home of democracy. Yet almost every network is guilty of discrimination against the Negro performer. There are a few isolated cases of Negroes in broadcasting, but the lily-white policy is seldom violated.—Lena Horne, Chicago Defender 1940
The fine pieces in the “Tune in to the Past” series have thoughtfully considered the audible legacies of Norman Corwin: the “kaleidosonic” aesthetics that Neil Verma called the “Corwinesque,” the virtually seamless melding of artistic and commercial concerns that Shawn VanCour analyzed, and the echoes of Corwin remixed into WNYC’s Radiolab that Alexander Russo amplified. But the research I performed for my book manuscript, The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, about the fraught relationship between race and 1940s radio, left me pondering the gaps and silences of Corwin’s soundscape. Radio’s “Golden Age” was also its most racially segregated: was the philosophy of “colorblindness” that Norman Corwin publicly espoused key to keeping it that way?
It’s not my goal to undermine Corwin’s work, but rather to enhance our understanding of it by embedding his broadcasts in the wider political, historical and sonic fields in which he was enmeshed. Just as Corwin’s sounded legacy left long-lasting traces in our media, so too have the silences and omissions fostered by the media executives, casting directors, union bosses, radio critics, and sonic auteurs of the “Golden Age.” If Corwin’s work is difficult to access save for far-flung archives and spotty collector’s catalogues, the exclusions of African-American producers, performers, and listeners are even harder to hear, in part because of his very insistence that radio’s microphones were colorblind. As the epigraph from Lena Horne testifies, the discourse of democracy is not mutually exclusive with segregation. In what follows, I discuss the intensely segregated history of the “Golden Age of Radio,” arguing that one of Corwin’s most far-reaching legacies may not have been set in motion by his virtuostic broadcasting, but rather by the World War II-era liberalism that shaped it.
The apex of Corwin’s radio career coincided with a profound shift in America’s dominant racial formation, the beginnings of “colorblindness.” By colorblindness, I mean the belief that if individuals and institutions ignored skin color as a signifier and eliminating race as an official category of identity—particularly within governmental institutions—it would cease to matter in American life and all groups would have equitable access to the privileges, opportunities, and freedoms afforded by citizenship. The shift toward colorblindness—what Michele Hilmes calls America’s “wartime racial realignment” in Radio Voices—was predicated on creating a sense of unity that would inspire men across the color-line to sign up to fight what was dubbed a war to end racism and fascism, even as it raged on in their segregated hometowns. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Double V Campaign—Victory against fascism abroad and Victory against racism at home—addressed these ironies. Barbara Dianne Savage’s Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race details the suppression of many black newspapers on military bases due to the Double V Campaign, as well as the pressure it put on government radio programs to address race. However, she notes:
if black people had been forced to rely on radio as their primary means of communication about the failings of the federal government, they would have been on an impossible mission, since they were admitted to radio only as entertainers or as briefly invited guests expected to be on their best behavior (94).
Despite high-profile protests in the black press, mainstream broadcasters constructed radio as an unmediated purveyor of equality and truth with increasing frequency during World War II—its “lofty aerials, symbols of freedom” according to New York Times radio critic Orrin Dunlap. In the case of Norman Corwin, he wrote a symptomatic (and nervy) editorial for Negro Digest in 1945 that depicted U.S. radio as a direct material and technological representation of colorblindness itself.
In “A Microphone. . . is. . . Color Blind”–what revealing ellipses!–Corwin assures black readers that “my feeling about Negroes in radio is that they belong as surely as the microphone.” This strange opening gambit compares black participation in radio to the mute technological presence of the microphone that, while absolutely central to broadcasting, is an object with no inherent agency. Unlike the proprietary, agenda-setting presence of whites in radio, a microphone amplifies the voices of others, while speaking not a word of its own. From his privileged vantage point, Corwin doesn’t quite realize how colorblindness enables him to use black people as tools.
And, while Corwin’s title insists on the microphone’s colorblindness, his article suggests otherwise. Much of his description of what America is missing without black people’s radio presence has to do with aural racial difference: “I have found the same thing that makes Negroes supremely great artists in song makes them great in speech. The color and warmth conveyed in the performance of a Negro artist is directly communicable by air. The microphone is a faithful reporter and says exactly what it hears.” In addition to perpetuating the old stereotype of black people as natural performers, Corwin’s realist depiction of the microphone as a “faithful reporter” that “says exactly what it hears” covers up exactly how much black voices were sculpted for white consumption during this period in radio; as actor Johnny Lee (“Algonquin C. Calhoun” on Amos ‘n’ Andy) told UCLA graduate student researcher Estelle Edmerson in 1954: “I had to learn how to talk as white people believed Negroes talked. Most of the directors take it for granted that if you’re a Negro actor, you’ll do the part of a Negro automatically.”
Whereas radio listeners were able to hear a wide range of white voices in a spectrum of roles—major and minor, comedic, dramatic, musical, informational—the sound and the content of black speech was circumscribed by the sonic color-line that marked it as “automatic,” essential, comedic, and potentially dangerous. Corwin’s use of the word “communicable” rather than “communicated,” for example, is a revealing flourish giving black sound a tinge of contagion and infectiousness. While ostensibly celebrating black voices, this passage simultaneously assures white listeners that they will still be able to unequivocally identify the race of any speaker over the “colorblind” airwaves and that this experience will be a pleasurable one for them. While the microphone may be color blind, it clearly is not color deaf.
That Corwin assumes a white audience becomes more obvious with his assertion a few lines later that “I have found too few Negroes who have taken an interest in radio. I suspect it’s because they don’t know about it.” This statement is fairly incredible, considering that the Research Company of America published a study in the radio industry magazine Sponsor that placed African American radio ownership at 87%, just shy of the national figure of 90% (October 1949, 25). Sponsor dubbed black audiences “The Forgotten 15,000,000.”
In addition to being inaccurate, Corwin’s suggestion that African Americans had limited knowledge of radio performs one of the signature moves of colorblindness; it makes institutional barriers to access—lack of training, networks, and mentorship, as well as straight up discriminatory hiring practices—invisible by asserting that black people only need to work harder to succeed in the American media industry. Under colorblindness, the failure to achieve success equitable to white citizens falls squarely on the shoulders of those oppressed. It also willfully mutes the protest of many black actors—such as Butterfly McQueen—who refused to participate in the segregated industry and the agency of all the black listeners who turned the dial on shows distasteful to them, allowing the fantasy of a unified (white) America to remain a powerful referent.
By and large, Corwin’s article paints colorblindness as already achieved. In his estimation, it is up to black people themselves to take advantages of the opportunities he suggests already await them via the colorblind microphone: “My attitude is not unique among radio directors—at least not in the main centers of radio[. . . ],“Corwin insists, “there is less prejudice in this field than in any other. It exists unfortunately, but you can get a hearing.” For someone whose bread and butter was rhetorical flourish, Corwin’s use of passive sentence construction to discuss racial prejudice is significant—he naturalizes it as something that merely “exists,” tooling along without any specific historical agent performing the discriminatory and oppressive actions. Such omission lets the white gatekeepers of the 1940s radio industry off the hook for both the institutional and individual forms of discrimination that kept the industry largely, as Lena Horne phrased it, “lily-white.”
Radio’s profound whiteness was aural as well as visual. In Corwin’s colorblind America, a radio “hearing” comes at a heavy price for African Americans. Without commenting on educational segregation, Corwin proclaimed: “Negro schools should have in their curriculum courses in public speaking, radio, theater. There is no reason why there should not be Negro announcers. It is important to study diction so that distinction in speech cannot be noted.” While Corwin begins “A Microphone. . . is. . .Color blind” by arguing that black voices should continue to retain the racial markings that are legible (and pleasurable) to white listeners, he then suggests they must also simultaneously sound enough like the white voices surrounding them in order to be heard and accepted as fellow American citizens. Radio didn’t just passively reflect the sounds of American citizenship during this period–it actively constructed them on a foundation of exclusion and silencing.
There remains, then, a profound disconnect between the full exercise of American citizenship, the idealized discourse of colorblind equality forwarded by government officials, media critics, and prominent broadcasters exemplified here by Corwin, and the actual representation of African Americans as radio producers, performers, and listeners during and after this period. At the same time as state-sponsored colorblind ideology rose to prominence during the war years, the U.S.’s airwaves became almost exclusively white. There were no black writers regularly employed by any national radio station during the 1940s and there was not a single black member of the Los Angeles Writer’s Guild. While black authors Langston Hughes and Carlton Moss wrote occasional scripts on one-shot contracts, they were about topics deemed of black interest by the networks. Black radio critic Joe Bostic—who would later become one of the nation’s first black radio sportscasters—described the limited openings for black radio performers:
publication last week of the most authoritative and comprehensive of the radio polls showed not a single Negro entertainer placing in the first ten of any branch of radio entertainment. Such a compilation outlines, in bold relief the disturbing fact that the Negro, long a leader in every phase of entertainment, is being excluded in this newest and most lucrative branch (People’s Voice, 1942).
Regular on-site broadcasts from nightspots that featured black performers all but vanished after 1940, meaning that the vast majority of black musical performances broadcast over the American radio networks were conditioned and mediated by white announcers and sponsors as well as the sounds of white-oriented programming that introduced and followed them.
To be clear, I don’t blame Corwin individually for the ideology of colorblindness and the world it has wrought, but I do think it is important to consider his role as a cultural producer in the “Golden Age” of segregated radio, and as a power broker who helped shape the media landscape with which we now contend. While we commemorate his labors as a sonic artist with high journalistic standards who undoubtedly worked to “glorify the ‘common man,’” we also have to consider the institutionalized privilege that enabled him to claim this role as his own, as well as the many people silenced by him doing so, inadvertently or not. Tuning in to the past demands a vigilant ear attentive to the profound silences of exclusion: the traces of words muted, mangled, disciplined and unsaid, as well as the subterranean reverberations ghosting the triumphant tones of the “Golden Age,” a shadow broadcast, on the lower frequencies, of all the sounds that might have been.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).
Yes, it’s that time again, readers. You are going to have to stop pretending the “Back to School” aisles haven’t been appearing in stores for the past few weeks. We at SO! are here to ease your transition from summer work schedules to the business of teaching and student-ing with our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy.” Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, this forum blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa). We hope to inspire your fall planning–whether or not you teach a course on “sound studies”–and encourage teachers and students of any subjects to reconsider the classroom as a sensory space. We also encourage you to share your feedback, tips, and experiences in comments to these posts and on our Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit sites. As I said in the Call for Posts for this Forum: “because teaching is so crucial—yet so frequently ignored at conferences and on campus—Sounding Out! wants to wants to provide a virtual space for this vital discussion.” This conversation will be ongoing: we will also bring you a “Spring Break Brush-Up” edition in 2013 featuring several more excellent posts by writers selected from our open call. Right now, the bell’s about to ring–so take a seat, open those ears, and enjoy this shiny auditory apple of an offering from D. Travers Scott in which he discusses how the sounds of #Occupy invigorated his classroom. And, yes, it will be on the test. –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
In the late fall of 2011, I was teaching a class on cultural studies of advertising. I presented the Occupy Student Debt campaign, a subcategory or spinoff of the larger Occupy movement, while we were examining ways people challenged consumer culture. We discussed education as a commodity and students as consumers. Unsurprisingly, my seniors were dissatisfied consumers. They expressed that what had been advertised to them was a product that guaranteed or at least would strongly increase their chances for quality employment (of course, it was also a product they had worked for years in creating, and one they couldn’t return.) If higher education really did land you the lucrative job it had been advertised as guaranteeing, in theory, then, you would be able to more easily pay off student loan debt. To address this dissatisfaction, I showed them two artifacts: a video from the launch in New York City on November 12, 2011, and the OSD debtors’ pledge*.
In the video, OSD founder Pamela Brown reads the pledge one line at a time, with each line chanted back by others. I played the video in a dark classroom. I also projected it on the room’s main screen, but I didn’t use the room’s amplification system because it sounds too much like an authoritarian public address and disperses the audio in a dominating way. External speakers connected to my laptop made the sound feel, to me, more localized and objectified, something we could focus on rather than an institutional part of the room. The students’ first reaction was, not to the words, but the sound: the verbal relay used at the public demonstration. Brows furrowed and heads cocked quizzically, they asked, “Why are they all repeating the speaker like that?” I explained how this provides additional amplification, but the students’ listening experience was instructive to me. Their unfamiliarity with a sonic practice of vocalization indicated their unfamiliarity with larger practices of collective, public social action.
Listening to OSD, and paying attention to how my students listened to it, informed me of larger contexts they needed to understand and discuss it, in ways that the object of the text did not suggest to me. It made me think about the experience and process of my students’ encountering OSD. I immediately noticed its ambient sounds of city life, which I no longer hear. These sounds of traffic, the acoustics of being surrounded by buildings, etc. gave several urban dimensions to the movement the pledge text did not. From the perspective of Upstate South Carolina, “urban” is not a simple thing, an identity or geography category, but intersectional: our largest city, Greenville, has a population under 60,000. City noises feel not merely urban, but un-Southern, and thereby alien. (I say un-Southern rather than Northern or Yankee because another thing I’ve learned here is the inadequacy of that binary: Los Angeles, for example, is not a Northern city but most certainly is as un-Southern as New York. Cities also carry a class dimension.) Even though my school is one of the elite institutions in this area, this region is still worse off economically than the rest of the country and has a generally lower cost of living. Cities require money to live in. In spatial, class, and urban dimensions, OSD felt alien.
The experience of listening to the ODS rally illustrates how a sound studies perspective foregrounds experiential processes over exclusive categories of things and ideas. For example, when I read the OSD Debtors’ Pledge aloud to my students—vocalizing the text and sounds and listening to them— it brought the text into my body, making it an action. It also made students uncomfortable. Even just a round-robin reading of theory seems to make then anxious and fidgety. While I try to understand and accommodate anxieties around public speaking, I think the way sound makes a text enter the body can be a powerful affective experience. And no one ever said the classroom always had to be comfortable. For me, reading the text aloud personalized the OSD pledge. It evoked sensory memories: “Pledge of” evoked saying the pledge of allegiance in public school; saying “We believe” took me to attending Lutheran church services with my husband at the time where they collectively recite the Apostles’ Creed. These associations evoked emotional disidentifications from organized religion and mandatory collective professions of patriotism. It also temporalized and spatialized OSD for me, positioning it in relations to Dallas, Texas in the 1970s and Greenville, SC today.
Overall, the reading aloud of the pledge staged a tension or dialectic of identification and disidentifications. Although I agreed and identified with the sentiments of the movement, several alienating and unsettling aspects of the pledge came through as I read aloud: the blithe collapsings of “we” and “as members of the most indebted generations” made me wary (collectives always do, but so do easy historical assertions. Really? Are we more indebted than indentured servants who came to America, or people born into slavery?), and the sudden shift to first person singular at the very end seemed jarring: (After saying “we” six times, suddenly it’s ‘I’ now – what happened?). Lastly, the numerous alliterations also had an alienating effect, making the text seem sophistic and manipulative, artificial, composed.
The auditory experience of OSD can also provide insight into how we create texts. A video of Andrew Ross shows him presenting the first, “very rough draft” weeks earlier at an OWS event. Listening to him read this different, earlier version underscores the text as process. The pledge is something that developed. While his flat tone and straight male voice do not appeal to me, they do complexify and dimensionalize Brown’s reading, giving it depth. They also show that some things that bothered me in the final version – the collectivity and alliterations – were not there. This intertextual, diachronic listening does not erase troublesome aspects of the ‘final’ text, but it mediates them. I am moved closer to it by listening to its different origin.
Arguably, any of these points could have been arrived at by good ole’ textual analysis. My point is not that listening always should supplant visual modes; sound studies tries to break that false dichotomy by not denigrating or replacing the visual but by elevating the sonic to complementary – not superseding – status. I argue that reading aloud should be a fundamental, basic component of sound studies methodology, as it allows anyone to hear, voice, embody, and experience a text. I not only noticed these aspects sooner through listening – my first time speaking it aloud, despite having read it at least a dozen times before. Moreover, I didn’t just notice them: I felt them on a personal, emotional, level, which spurs thinking and analysis that is, if not completely new and unique, definitely qualitatively different in its potency and urgency.
Listening to OWS, and the OSD in particular, brings insights affective and personal. Yes, I can read a statistic from a survey stating that a certain percentage of participants in OWS feel angry or betrayed. That doesn’t mean anything to me in a specific, personal, and empathetic way – and empathy is crucial for a social movement to garner support. Listening to both Ross and Brown, I am reflective and conflicted over my professional role – no longer a grad student, but certainly not an established scholar like Ross. I feel connected to OSD in ways beyond the literal facts of my debt. Listening draws me into a contemplative, reflexive space beyond a sticky note on my office desk saying “OWS: teachable moment.” I can see a map with big, red OWS circles over Washington D.C. and New York, but I don’t feel the distance from myself and my students in the same way—and this is crucial for my teaching and engaging them in dialogue about what could be the most significant social movements of their lifetimes.
On a Tuesday right after Valentine’s Day in 2011 thousands of people marched on the Wisconsin capitol and good-naturedly, but firmly, took over the building. They came for a hearing scheduled by the state government’s Joint Finance Committee, and as crowds swelled out on the snow-covered lawn a long line of citizens formed indoors, waiting their turn to address the Committee and give brief remarks about proposed changes to the state budget.
Up for discussion was the Governor’s proposal to cut public employees’ benefits and eliminate their collective bargaining rights, and having gotten word of widespread outcry, the co-chairs of the Committee had released this statement:
We welcome public participation in our representative democracy. Unlike two years ago when Democrats did not hold a public hearing for the last budget repair bill, we want to listen to individuals’ concerns. Due to the large number of participants, each person will be given up to 2 minutes to address the committee. This will ensure that everyone has their voice heard.
Late that night, the Committee cut off public testimonies in spite of a line still stretched down the hall. One group refused to leave and staged an occupation of the capitol building in protest of both the bill and the foreclosure of public input.
Over the next few weeks, people slept overnight on the marble floor while bigger groups assembled there each day, reportedly in numbers reaching between 70,000 and 100,000. Many carried signs backing public sector workers, but the overall majority showed their solidarity with the protest simply by wearing bright “Badger red” hats, coats, sweaters, and shirts, University of Wisconsin memorabilia now transformed into signs of political support for all of the state’s public institutions. The view from upper levels of the capitol rotunda struck a dramatic portrait as people ringed the center of the room facing inward. One person who spent a lot of time there told me he liked to call it the “eye of the storm.”
Domed spaces tend to be noisy. Sound bounces off of the curvature of the ceiling at so many different angles that what’s audible on the floor quickly takes on so many threads of reverberation that a single voice gets easily obscured. In the Wisconsin capitol, handheld electric bullhorns became instrumental for leading chants and making announcements, but people found they didn’t always do the trick. In one reported instance, a megaphone still wasn’t enough for one woman’s voice to be heard across the rotunda, and so she broke her announcement into fragments and waited in between them as people standing near her repeated each one in loud unison. “State Senator Dale Schultz [repeated]…has withdrawn his vote for the bill [repeated].”
Today that variation of call and response is widely regarded as an iconic feature of the Occupy Wall Street campaign, where it has been likened to liturgy, to brainwashing, to a game of “telephone,” to Garrett Morris’s “News for the Hard of Hearing” bit from Saturday Night Live, and to Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Yet also, as the practice was manifest at lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, it has attracted great interest and variety of comment regarding how it might reflect the values and objectives of those gathering in downtown New York City. It was purported to unite a crowd; it helps ensure that “no one is left to feel isolated and alone;” it accelerates the exchange of information because it “forces everyone to edit group public speech down to the essentials;” it slows the campaign and gives it valuable time to develop; it is “a lesson in the obstinacy required for intentional, durable citizenship.”
Although one need only consider the depth of history stretching out prior to the invention of electric amplification to be certain that the method of communication isn’t new to this year nor even to this century, the question of its recent emergence remains important for identifying possible affinities across boundaries that might otherwise divide protest actions. Last winter in Wisconsin, after transmitting the message about Senator Schultz, the demonstrators apparently didn’t carry on with it the way people did in lower Manhattan, but one need not stop at noting that this proves the technique wasn’t invented this fall in New York. In the capitol building, members of the Wisconsin public instituted a different audio innovation that reflects a shared sense of purpose between the two protest actions. And if one follows a similar connection recently posited in Rolling Stone Magazine between Occupy Wall Street and factory takeovers in Argentina, one might bring into focus a call and response operating across even broader stretches of time and space.
In Wisconsin, the civil disobedience broke out immediately after lawmakers ended the budget hearing with citizens still waiting to speak, and in the following days an alternative system of public testimony took shape on the floor of the capitol rotunda. According to one member of the collective who facilitated its operation, the forum emerged in conjunction with a circle of drummers, who, during pauses in their playing, invited individuals to sequentially address all those gathered using megaphones carried in by the public. Soon after moving up to a single-speaker amplifier that had been provided on friendly loan, some of the drummers pooled their money and purchased a 70-watt (RMS) portable public address system, an additional extension speaker, and a Shure SM58 for, according to one, “whomever wanted to speak, ensuring their voices were heard, never cutting anyone off or denying anyone the right to speak.” With what I submit as telling coincidence, they called the apparatus “The People’s Mic.”
Here is a clip that came up when I used Google to search with the terms “people’s microphone Wisconsin video.”
There are important contrasts between this platform for testament and the call and response technique that has garnered recent notoriety under the same name. In its Zuccotti Park incarnation, the people’s microphone is often celebrated as a clever workaround designed in response to the prohibition against using electric sound amplifiers in public without a permit. However, its key feature is the reciprocity it demands between the person speaking “into” the microphone and others gathered in the space. In this way it not only attenuates the hierarchy usually exerted by one amplified person over the soundscape, but it also fosters the pursuit of accord within the group overall, because the method’s very functioning relies so heavily on the crowd’s ongoing willingness to participate:
In Wisconsin, the People’s Mic did provide citizens a platform otherwise reserved for government and union officials (and the celebrities of their choosing), but individual testimonies were still unidirectional and the system proceeded without the same means of direct and immediate exchange, at least in the realm of sound. As we see in these clips, in Wisconsin, the People’s Mic required the largest number of people to keep quiet for the longest amount of time. Sometimes people had to keep especially quiet because the sound of chanting from outside was bleeding into the space.
However, while much of the discussion of the people’s microphone constructed in Zuccotti Park centers on its horizontal, consensus-oriented nature, why reduce the method’s oppositional potential to a matter of challenging government’s increasing control over the audible city? Fortunately, as though taking a more direct cue from the People’s Mic as it was instigated in Wisconsin, people have recently begun pushing the call and response version adopted in New York past the confines of community building, realizing its practical potential to channel a message and grab the attention of leaders far too often unavailable, unwilling, or uninterested in taking time to—as the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee had grandly promised—“welcome public participation in our representative democracy.”
The following clips show how the people’s microphone in its new iteration has been used to satisfy the goal more explicitly associated with its Wisconsin variation—that of getting heard. The first comes from an October 25,2011 meeting of the New York City Panel for Education Policy, where a crowd packing a public forum forced board members to relinquish control of the proceedings and allow a statement conveyed on behalf of parents and teachers.
And here in a clip from a November 3, 2011 breakfast meeting at the upscale Union League Club in Chicago, people used the technique as it is now most widely associated with the New York City campaign and directly reconnected it to the efforts in Wisconsin, not only in the sense that they focused their amplifying echo at a particular intended audience, but also by virtue of whom they chose to address:
While some might take exception to these two examples as uses of the people’s microphone without enough reciprocity in mind, I have some confidence that viewers will look upon the second clip, especially, as an overdue carriage bearing a bit of just that. But more importantly to the issue of how the different iterations fit together—Madison, New York City, and beyond—both of these scenes are peaceful, attention-grabbing, and they appear to stem from no more seditious an effort than to urge democratically elected leaders to entertain the voices of their constituents even, and especially, if they aren’t using a “corporate microphone” to speak. Now, with New York police having cleared Zuccotti Park and thrown the Wall Street campaign into yet another bout with uncertainty, it will be especially interesting to find out where, how, and by whom, the people’s microphone is picked up and repurposed again. In Wisconsin, a drive to recall Governor Scott Walker just got underway, and if demonstrations break out again at the capitol, I expect the portable PA will be back up and running. How will people use the people’s mic this time? How will they speak to those recently evicted from Zuccotti Park?
Ted Sammons is completing a doctorate in anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY.