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The Screech Within Speech

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Weird Tales CoverWelcome back to SO!‘s Sonic Shadows series, which focuses on what it means to “have a voice.” In the first post in the series, I considered the role of the novel in sound studies, and how, paradoxically, this led us back to the embodied voice of the writer. In Joseph Conrad’s prose, traces of accent and translingualism shape the sonic space of difference, but also reframe the novel as a social, yet ambiguous act of communication.

This week, I’m happy to welcome Dominic Pettman, who picks up the question of the embodied human voice as it brushes up against the animal in what he calls the “voice of the world.” Next week, the series will conclude with uncanny mechanical sounds of early recording that trouble the voice of the human from within.

— Julie Beth Napolin, Guest Editor

This is the sound of “the loneliest whale in the world.”

Scientists have tracked this mournful creature for several years, intrigued by the melancholy songs, which go unanswered. The call of this singular cetacean, an Internet cult figure of unidentified species, registers at the unusual frequency of 52hz, much higher than that of all other types of whale.

These days, in general, whales have been forced into relatively tiny sonic boxes because of the din created by ship engines and various audio probings of the marine environment by military and industry alike. As bio-acoustician Christopher Clark, suggests, this assault and subsequent diminishment of the whale’s soundscape must be extremely traumatic for the animal, whose overall umwelt has shrunk from large swathes of the watery planet to barely a mile or so in any given direction. The noisier the ocean becomes the lonelier whales are likely to become.

“anim1083″ by Flickr user NOAA Photo Library, CC BY 2.0

The 52hz whale is a bit like an outsider artist, offering personalized songs to the sub-aquatic world, only to be snubbed by the more “vocal” members of whale community. Cetaceans could arguably be considered the first instance of global communication, many millions of years ago, since their calls could travel astonishing distances – up to 500 miles under water. Songs of the humpback, for instance, can “sweep across the Pacific in just a few years,” as biologists from the University of Queensland explain. “In any given year, all the males in a population sing the same song, but the songs change from year to year. The changes are more than incremental; they represent whole new repertoires.”

Can we really, however, speak of singing in such cases? Many would argue that simply using the organ of vocalization does not equate to singing in that it lacks the element of self-reflection necessary for true expression; for artistry. Others have conversely argued that humans were likely taught to sing by other creatures, especially the birds. These perspectives on the question of the interspecies voice have a long and complex history, crisscrossing epochs, as well as those divergent orientations to the natural world crudely divided into “East” and “West.” In this post, I focus on what it means to try to hear the animal beyond or through human terms, to explore the question of who or what can rightly claim to have a voice – is it a property or capacity that belongs to a subject, even a nonhuman subject? Might we consider voice to include “expression” of the elements themselves? Might the world itself, whatever such a grand phrase might denote, have a vox mundi – a voice of the planet?

“Angry” by Pixabay user PublicDomainPictures, public domain

Such questions deserve long and careful consideration, [and SO! has housed a series of reflections on acoustic ecology and a singing planet.] But in this brief context, I focus on the historically contested existence of a creaturely voice – one which describes a plurality of vocal expressions, distributed among those species blessed with the capacity to make sounds with their bodies. As Tobias Menely explains in a wonderful new book, the creaturely voice, like the human one, forms the vector of sympathy; and is thus suspended between the individual producing the sound, and the one listening to it. Through “the voice of nature” we understand our essential “creaturely entanglement” with other animals. This perspective pushes Mladen Dolar’s psychoanalytic theory that voice ties self to other to include the nonhuman experience of the animal realm.

Menely argues for a condition of social identity in “creaturely voice,” which is a way of testing the world, and one’s location, role, and value in it. In other words, monkeys, birds, whales, and so on, test their own existence when they emit non-symbolic equivalents of, “I’m here.” “Where are you?” “Are you really there?” “Who are you?” “Marco.” “Polo.” These are the unspoken – and yet at least partially communicated – messages woven into the ever-vanishing, yet always returning, medium of the voice.

Take, for instance, the parrot or cockatoo. We humans have been fascinated by these birds, largely by virtue of their perceived organic capacity to “record” our own voices, and throw these back at us, like trickster ventriloquists, long before the invention of the phonograph. Certainly, this can create an uncanny effect in the human listener: hearing our own voice echoed back from the larynx of a creature so different from ourselves – a creature that may or may not have its own mind or soul. Historically speaking, many people who had their figurative feathers ruffled by the impertinence of parrots deflected the discomfort they felt, upon hearing their own words screeched back at them.

This pet parrot, who had clearly been in the room when its owner was watching X-rated material, recently became famous. The instant mirth, and/or discomfort, that this clip produces is a function of hearing ourselves, as humans, echoed back by an animal. Our words are “rebroadcast” back to us by an entity that has no sense of irony or decorum. It is literally obscene. It is as if the world were engaged in objective parody of the planet’s most arrogant animal: revealing one of our most sacred activities (“making love”) to be little more than a kind of crude ventriloquial trick. This parrot is not deliberately lampooning us, yet, the refrain created by the bird’s imitative tendencies means that we are lampooned nevertheless.

Another famous pet cockatoo was given to a new couple after a bitter divorce obliged it to find a new home. The details of the break-up remain obscure to the second owners. However, this (traumatized?) cockatoo re-enacts the tone, pitch, and vehemence of the arguments that it was obliged to witness in its previous life. While most of the “words” the cockatoo screeches are not clear enough to be translated, the emotions that initially launched them are obvious to all within hearing distance. The bird even bobs its head, and spreads its wings, in imitation of the angry body language of a wife scorned, spurned, or otherwise so aggrieved that she can only incessantly shriek at the man who made her so miserable. Whose voice is this, then?

Parrots are like children, some might claim, squawking back syllables they will never comprehend. One might as well yell into a cave, and be astonished that the words return as a consequence of physics. Bird songs, according to such a concept, create what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “a refrain,” which in turn generates a territory through the act of sonically diagramming it. This operation is not limited to the natural world, however, since we may say the same about television sets or saxophones.

Consider how children, or lovers, playfully imitate the speech of the other. In doing so, they assert their own identity, while also putting such an identity under erasure. Many animals (including humans) may thus be creatures who continue to flesh themselves out in(to) this territory. But instead of the animal echoing back the human, what about the reverse? As a final example, consider one famous instance of simulated human suffering, “devolving” into a creaturely register; namely, the old literature professor, Dr. Immanuel Rath, who experiences a nervous breakdown when he succumbs to intense jealousy and a broken heart, at the climax of Josef von Sternberg’s classic film, The Blue Angel (1930).

Just as the full weight of his rejection, at the hands of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is being registered in his psyche, the professor – who has quit teaching to follow his beloved in the cabaret world – is ushered out onto the theatrical stage, dressed as a clown. The audience waits in skeptical anticipation of an amusing performance, but the haunted ex-professor can only unleash a torrent of repressed anguish at his broken heart, and his humiliation at the hands of the vulgar mob. The horrible sound he releases, silencing the crowd, is part spurned lover, part rooster, and wholly abject. The professor seems to lose almost all his humanity, which was once verifiable in his composed and authoritative teaching voice, but is now some kind of demonic bird, screeching in misery, fury, and defeat. As this seemingly mindless force of vengeance tries to strangle his romantic obsession backstage, and as he continues to struggle against those who restrain him, the ex-professor has become creaturely: a supposedly subhuman status signified more by his inhuman voice than by anything else.

And yet, as we have seen, there is no simple hierarchy here, where the human occasionally – in times of great distress – finds themselves, by this logic, reduced to being “an animal.” We might call this the vox mundi – the voice of the world—in which, like the shadowy depths of the ocean, there is a swath of sound shared by human and animal. The creaturely voice can be sweet, like the nightingale. Or it can be harsh, like the traumatized cockatoo or the green-eyed professor-clown. There is an intimate link between the voices of animals and those of humans, which cannot be reduced to a concept like “communication,” but which nevertheless impacts and influences all those in hearing distance.

“Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christpher Michel, CC BY 2.0

That is, unless one happens to be a whale, singing at 52hz. In which case, we are likely to keep singing into the inky darkness, without any reply.

Dominic Pettman is Chair of Liberal Studies, New School for Social Research, and Professor of Culture & Media, Eugene Lang College. He is the author of several books, including Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zero books), and the forthcoming Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media (Polity).

Featured image: “Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0

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

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

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

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Whiteness and Sound Studies

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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

Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur

"Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar" by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve been hesitant to write about Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) because there are layers to the shit. Sonic, cultural, and political layers that need time to breathe and manifest. Some of those layers are pedagogical. For example, Brian Mooney brilliantly paired the album with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to help students work through themes of Black consciousness and self-love. Mooney’s lesson plan garnered Lamar’s attention and a recent visit with Mooney students. Lamar’s open grappling with art and blackness throw him into heavy debates about his worth as a cultural and even literary icon. Yet Lamar’s formula of introspective angst – the use of battling his own demons to shed light on broader American society – pulls me to think about how Lamar and TPAB fit into a long standing trajectory of Black folks’ self-examination in art as a frame for larger critiques of racial politics in American society.

Screenshot of album cover

Screenshot of album cover

I’m drawn to TPAB’s outro of the final track of the album “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man” sonically invokes Lamar’s struggle to assume a position as a gatekeeper of a branch of hip hop that focuses on Black community and self-actualization. The track includes a sample from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview with Swedish music journalist Mats Nileskär. Lamar positions himself as the interviewer, asking a different set of questions that engages Shakur about walking the fault lines of fame, fortune, and Black consciousness in this current cycle of hip hop. The construction and execution of the interview revisits the lines between hip hop’s collective and generational responsibilities via Lamar and Shakur’s interaction. Their conversation moves from creative (and creating) political protest to larger philosophical questions within hip hop: self-consciousness, mortality, and death. Lamar parallels his angst with Tupac using his voice, with Tupac himself heralded as hip hop’s martyred t.h.u.g. with a conscience. In this contemporary moment where Black men’s mortality and worth is attached to being a thug and a problem, Lamar poses Shakur in “Mortal Man” as a keystone for connecting popular scripts with cultural expectations of Black masculinity and agency in the United States.

The song “Mortal Man” launches the interview. The track can be considered a double sample – it uses Houston Person’s cover of Fela Kuti’s song “I No Get Eye for Back.” Lamar’s voice is clear but the background track soft and subdued, forcing the listener to pay full attention to Lamar’s voice, which interrogates what it takes for one to be loyal or respected in mainstream America. Percussion (bass kicks, acoustic drums, soft piano chords) and bass guitar chords annotate Lamar’s solemn lyrical delivery. A horn and woodwind medley – lead by Houston’s tenor sax playing – punctuate Lamar’s chorus:

When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

When the shit his the fan, is you still a fan?

Want you to look to your left and right, make sure you ask your friends

The instrumental accompaniment is soft and steady, suggesting Lamar’s question is a continuous negotiation or checklist for one’s proclamation of loyalty and respect. Lamar’s repetition of “when the shit hit the fan is you still a fan” addresses his fanbase and the followers of other notable Black cultural and creative leaders. They, like Lamar, are usefully flawed – whether by accusation or self-proclamation – and use their flaws to further their cause. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Moses, Malcolm X, and Michael Jackson all exhibited social-cultural and political agency for (Black) folks. Yet they also suffered scrutiny and disregard because of their personal lives or less-than-respectable experiences.

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

I am especially intrigued by Lamar’s reference to Malcolm X as “Detroit Red,” a nickname X had as a young hellraiser before his conversion to Islam. Lamar’s reference to X in his youth here speaks to larger questions of respectability, Black youth, and protest. Detroit Red is young, flawed but influential, similar to Lamar and other young Black folks leading protests in this contemporary moment. Lamar’s roll call suggests a struggle with the question of authority, both as a creator of Black culture and how his music implies a larger struggle of contemporary Black agency and angst. Interviewing Tupac brings Lamar’s struggle to a head, evoking Shakur’s voice as a culturally recognizable authority of hip hop’s commercial progress and cultural process. The trope of a flawed nature as a departure point for creative expression and agency is a theme that runs throughout TPAB and the rest of Lamar’s musical catalogue.

The musical accompaniment to the “Mortal Man” song fades out and against a backdrop of silence Lamar begins to recite what he states is an unfinished piece. He begins, “I remember when you was conflicted,” which implies he is talking to himself or talking to someone else. The background silence that leads to Lamar and Shakur’s conversation is as telling as the conversation itself, sonically alluding both to Lamar’s ‘quiet’ struggles of self-affirmation and the possibility that someone other than the audience is listening. The quiet is Lamar’s moment of clarity; the listeners are with him at his most vulnerable moment. He uses the silence to focus attention on himself and without the ‘outside noise’ of others’ beliefs and impressions of his music and purpose.

“2Pac” By Flickr user
Tupac Amaru Shakur, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the interview takes place over 20 years earlier, Tupac’s answers are clear and ‘live.’ Shakur’s initial voice is pensive and calculating – he sounds like he is thinking through his responses as he speaks – but later sounds more relaxed, laughing and talking louder and faster. The decreasing formality of Shakur’s answers suggests his increasing comfort with the interviewer as well as confidence in his own answers (and ultimately in sharing his beliefs). Lamar’s use of Shakur’s voice serves as the ultimate form of crate digging, using an obscure (or rare) radio interview sample to create his own voice in hip hop. Lamar’s engagement with Shakur serves memory as a cultural archive and as a cultural production. He not only preserves Shakur’s legacy in his own words but uses Shakur as a departure point for how to blur acts of listening for hip hop fans in a digital age.

The act of listening takes center stage for the interview. The interview is presented as an informal sitdown, reminiscent of what takes place during studio sessions: artists share new material and garner advice from veteran artists. Both rookies and veteran artist listen for new perspectives and listening for suggestions to approach a topic or track. Listening here shows Lamar’s awe and respect of Shakur’s perspective and artistry but also hints at how his conversation with Shakur is ultimately a conversation with himself. Lamar starts the conversation with an unfinished piece about his angsts regarding commercial success and how it conflicts with his creative process. He then moves on to asking Shakur about how he grapples with his creative and political consciousness. The listening work taking place here is critical and archival: without Lamar’s (and Lamar’s audience) interest in Shakur’s creative process his voice loses authority and ultimately its power.

Image From NY Daily News

Image From NY Daily News

Tupac’s sonic ‘resurrection’ signifies his lasting effect in hip hop while serving as a springboard for Lamar’s own pondering about the purpose of his music and the burden of its success. Unlike the visual representation of Shakur via hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, Lamar’s use of Tupac’s sonic likeness offers an alternative entry point for engaging Tupac’s work outside of his rapping. For example, much of Shakur’s social-political work takes place in his poetry i.e. his collection of poetry The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Further, the ‘thingness’ of the hologram, a physical and technological manifestation of hip hop fans’ and artists’ revering of Tupac’s image and death, makes me think about the type of work the hologram was expected to perform as compared to the sonic ‘ghostliness’ of Tupac’s voice on Lamar’s track. If, as John Jennings suggests, the hologram manifested Tupac as a “ghost in the machine,” how does Tupac’s voice work as a ghost in the machine? On a visceral level hearing Tupac’s voice in conversation with Kendrick Lamar stirs feelings about whether or not he is dead or alive and his immortality as a hip hop icon.

Where the Coachella hologram visualized Tupac Shakur spirit, “Mortal Man” sonically evokes his spirit and the connection between his (im)mortality and storytelling. Lamar says: “Sometimes I be like. . .get behind a mic and I don’t what type of energy I’ma push out or where it comes from.” Shakur responds “because the spirits, we ain’t really even rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Listening to Shakur’s use of “we” out of historical context – the interview took place in 1994, 21 years before “Mortal Man” – suggests that Tupac himself is among the dead. He is a “dead homie” and telling a story that Lamar himself is trying to relay to his audience and himself. Yet the lingering possibility of Tupac’s mortality – most embodied in Tupac’s silence after Lamar’s discussion of the significance of a caterpillar to the album – is a powerful moment of protest. Shakur’s quiet and Lamar’s attempt to “call him back,” signifies a period in the conversation. Lamar is left to fend for himself, fighting a “fight he can’t win.” There is also the possibility that his exchange with Shakur is “just some shit he wrote,” an unfinished idea and story that he is still figuring out. Lamar’s rendering of Tupac’s voice makes me think about the DJ Spooky statement “the voice you speak with may not be your own.” Tupac’s ghostly voice and Lamar’s search for his own voice blend to present Tupac as a mouthpiece for not only himself but Lamar.

At surface level Lamar resurrects and interviews Tupac Shakur because of regional ties to West Coast hip hop and a nearly standard declaration in rap of Shakur’s influence and fandom. He is arguably the most celebrated and iconic figure in hip hop. Shakur’s untimely death and open struggles with seeking balance between fame and personal responsibility mold him as hip hop’s shining prince. Shakur’s family ties with the Black Panther Party – a member of the Panthers once called him an “eternal cub” – positioned him to use hip hop as a mouthpiece for contemporary Black protest. But Shakur’s branding of protest and hip hop was messy, in part because of a working understanding and maneuvering of his image as controversial and commercially successful.

“KENDRICK LAMAR” by Flickr user
Pemberton Music Festival (Credit: Andy Holmes), CC BY-NC 2.0)

The “Mortal Man” interview signifies sound’s ability to usefully bridge past and present social, cultural, and political moments. Lamar’s sonic evoking of Tupac Shakur demonstrates hip hop as a space of Black youth political protest. Lamar uses sound to render hip hop temporality and re-emphasize Black popular culture as a departure point for recognizing contemporary Black angst. The shrinking mediums of spaces available to indicate why and how #BlackLivesMatter position the sonic as a work bench for engaging race relations in a deemed post-racial era. The “Mortal Man” interview serves as a blueprint for connecting hip hop to longstanding conversations about Black protest as a (messy) cultural product.

Featured image: “Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar” by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”— Toniesha Taylor

Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever

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