(T)racing Mother Listening: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke SinitiereKristin MoriahAaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post (the second of an interlocking trilogy of essays) by Julie Beth Napolin continues to echolocate Du Bois and Freud as lived contemporaries, exploring entangled notions of melancholic listening across the Veil.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.

In “Intimacy and Affliction,” Peter Coviello writes of W.E.B. Du Bois’ abiding, proto-psychoanalytic preoccupation with race’s “entanglements with virtually every aspect of intimate life” (4). Such entanglement demands, he suggests, a method both historical and psychoanalytic. Coviello recalls, for example, the work of Hortense Spillers who writes that Du Bois finds in the color line “radically different historical reasons” for such key psychoanalytic themes as the “look” than those to be discovered in the pages of Lacan (726).

While there’s much to say on this topic, I want to focus in particular on the contribution of Du Bois to a psychoanalytic theory of listening, showing how that contribution demands a renewed return of psychoanalysis, sexuality, and race to sound studies. Beginning to touch upon these questions, literary critic Joseph Flatley describes the intersection of politics and melancholia in Du Bois to argue for what he calls “affective mapping” in listening.  For Du Bois, songs disclose the historicity of his feelings, bound to other people who feel and have felt like he does before (146), creating a transpersonal map.  This disclosure, Flatley writes, “always beckons towards a potentially political effect,” an effect that is often “nascent and unrealized” (106). Such nascence, or what Sara Marcus calls “untimely feedback,” begins to explain why we listen to old songs in the present: old feelings are waiting for us to take them up in politically transformative ways. I will unfold this claim in this week’s post to conclude with an analysis of the politics of sound, gender, and sexuality in Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, Moonlight.

Du Bois’ mode of presentation of word, sound, and melody in The Souls of Black Folk has been theorized by Alexander Weheilye as being akin to DJ samples cutting and mixing history and by Eric Sundquist as the elevation of a uniquely African American culture. In an earlier post in this series, “More Ancient Than Words,” Aaron Carter-Ényì argues that, in including melodies, Du Bois “entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon,” changing the concept of “the book.”

vinyl loves water, image by Flickr User Georgios Kaleadis

Beyond this work of canonization, which turns upon the existence of what Gilroy names the “Black Atlantic,” the materiality of Du Bois’ text discloses much concerning the suppressed contours of both race and the feminine in psychoanalytic theories of listening. It is difficult to separate these theories (particularly Chion’s, as Kaja Silverman makes plain in The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema) from Freud’s premise of a universal, male subject. In Freud’s theory of the Oedipal phase, the male child desires to supplant the father, and the mother—who is culturally forbidden from being seen in any way as being akin to or “like” the boy—emerges as the model of the proper object for heterosexual desire. But the pre-Oedipal phase is the opposite, defined by a closeness with the mother, often revealed in the language of cooing sounds they share. In other words, masculinity is culturally founded on the rejection of the feminine. Despite Silverman’s major contribution, this structure still remains essential for sound studies to deconstruct, particularly as it obscures other kinds of historical determinations that give shape to listening and the psychic life of sound in Du Bois’ text.

Psychoanalysis had been largely abandoned by the various “historical turns” in media studies. But it can only be recuperated in a Du Boisian fashion, that is, by the modes of listening made available by his text. Above all, the psychobiography indicated by Du Boisian listening is neither “universal” nor Oedipally determined—shaped by the destruction of the maternal— but rather historically and politically wrought by the specificity and ubiquity of the Middle Passage, or what Christina Sharpe names “being in the wake.”

“In the Wake,” image by Flickr User Sharonius Maximus

Unfolding the gendered afterlife of the Middle Passage has proved crucial for black feminism. Saidiya Hartman’s lyrical memoir of her experience as an African American woman traveling along the former routes of the Atlantic slave trade, for example, is defined by the feeling of what it is to “lose your mother.” This phrase contains many melancholic resonances, including the ideal of Africa (as a place of imaginary “return”), its phantasmatic, lost mother tongues, and fantasies of reunited kin in the midst of longing for “a new naming of things” (39). At the same time, Hartman suggests, the African American subject—whose name is derived from the slave owner—is “born with a blank space where a father’s name should be.” This blank space, its attendant forms of de-gendering, makes an imputed maternal inheritance of the black subject in the American cultural imaginary nothing less than a “monstrosity” (81).

In tension with these revelations, Sundquist’s magisterial To Wake the Nations argues that Du Bois’ textual presentation and formal strategies of pairing word and melody indicate racial amalgamation. Such a notion, however, is largely fraternal in its connotation. Indeed, the poetic epigraphs Du Bois calls upon are from white men, as many have critiqued. Flatley has shown how the “echo of haunting melody” is both historically and melancholically charged in Du Bois. We in sound studies can go further to describe how it is an acousmatic sound object. Such a claim involves intervening in the racially neutral terrain of the sound object to insist that it emanates in Du Bois’ memory from a black maternal position. This position makes the epigraphic space not so much an otherworldly union, but a violently charged, historical space that listens for the traces of miscegenation. It desires a place for the black maternal that could be articulated without also being repressed.

Where there is amalgamation, there is sexuality. Du Bois’ formal strategies, both conscious and unconscious, are radical because they indicate potential for a theory for a listening derived from or animated by a black feminine position.


To listen for the black maternal in Du Bois, then, involves returning to its most traumatic memory of song, one carried by his unnamed grandfather’s grandmother in the book’s final chapter, “The Sorrow Songs.” Whereas the opening epigraphs of Du Bois’s text provide us with bars of melody offered without comment, his final chapter is a sustained and nearly musicological analysis of song. The one amplifies silence, heightening the gap between reading, hearing, and understanding, the other produces cultural knowledge. At the core of “The Sorrow Songs” is the autobiographical memory of a song first heard in childhood. It is perhaps his earliest memory of song, though we can’t be sure.

Do ba – na co – ba, ge – ne me, ge – ne me!
Do ba – na co – ba, ge – ne me, ge – ne me!

Ben d’ nu – li, nu – li, nu – li, nu – li, ben d’ le.

He recalls this melody, as sung by a Bantu woman seized by Dutch traders: “The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.” For Du Bois, the song remains a transmission that necessarily involves both a partial memory and a mode of overhearing, as if hearing from a distance. Du Bois “overhears” not because, like Freud’s Wolf Man, he stands at the threshold of a secret and clandestine threshold. Du Bois overhears because to receive the song in the New World is already to be traumatized, on the outside of some possibility of full transmission. Carter-Ényì describes how rhythms and “melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural transmissions.” Melody in Du Bois provides “an alternate theory” of orality and literacy, one that privileges not a spoken oral tradition, but rather a survival of music, an aural tradition, as Carter-Ényì calls it, where melodies hold fast when language is “violently submerged.”

I want to fasten upon a different but related aural affect, not the one of immediate recognition (through which the song is passed down), but rather its attendant ambivalence and gaps. This gap—hearing without understanding— returns us to Souls as a displaced beginning of psychoanalytic modes of listening.

“Bubbles, Streams, and Waves.” Image by Flickr User Wolfgang Widener

According to Theodor Reik, Freud’s musically attuned student, Freud experienced an extreme distaste for music because an analytic trait bristled against something he couldn’t clearly theorize. When he did attend to the songs remembered by his patients, Freud suggested that only the words mattered. Bucking his master, Reik instead privileged the sound of a song, a tune and its affective valences, noting that “haunting melodies”—the same phrase used by Du Bois to describe sorrow songs as they echo on the other side of the Middle Passage—must be listened to with what Reik called a “third ear.”  Insisting that two ears already too many, Jacques Lacan resists Reik’s emphasis upon listening for meaning to suggest that an analyst instead “listen for sounds and phonemes, words, locutions, and…not forgetting pauses, scansions, cuts” (394). Even transcriptions of patient speech, Lacan says, must include these as the basis of “analytic intuition.”

The way the analyst listens beyond meaning resonates with Du Bois who was already listening to, repeating, and writing down the Bantu song without knowing what the words mean, nevertheless “knowing,” as it were, the meaning, ascribing to it great psychological importance. In the language of sound studies, “Do ba – na co – ba” is a sound object. Something of it is acousmatic, arriving as a sound separated from source. But the acousmatic is largely apolitical in its orthodox, Schaefferian conception. Schaeffer deems the sound object to be separable from its ecology, which would include not only ideology and the social, but race and history. In contrast, we learn from Du Bois that an acousmatic situation can rest upon historically determined partial memory. “Do ba – na co – ba” is sung in a so-called “mother tongue,” but this tongue is unknowable, unretrievable by Du Bois (the words he remembers as sounds have yet to be translated by historians).

We can’t forget that, like Du Bois, Freud died in exile (the one in Ghana, American citizenship revoked, the other in London, escaping persecution). When Reik describes the haunting melody, he begins with the experience of mourning. What he doesn’t say is that he himself, writing in English in America, was in émigré from war. The émigré is not the captive, and immigration is not forced migration of the Middle Passage. My point is that the position of racialized listening that is submerged in Freud is the avowed place of beginning in Du Bois, allowing him to address head on the historical and political conditions of listening, even though he can’t totally compass their sexual charge. He is listening for a new kind of political subject whose dictum is “lose your mother.”

Coast off Accra, Ghana, Image by Flickr User Fellfromatree

Importantly, “Do ba – na co – ba” is not part of the pre-Oedipal maternal effluence of sound and rhythm that Julia Kristeva famously calls the “semiotic chora.” Part of the content of the song is defined by being missing, seized, and surviving (rather than simply coming and going). Nor is it structured by the Oedipal desire to supplant the father and have the desire mother. Above all, Du Bois turns to this intensely personal memory of song to posit an individual coming into formation through a memory of song that is collective. These songs are both his and belong to others. Hearing the song involves affective mapping, or understanding oneself as being more than oneself (which we will find in part three of this essay) is the crux of sound and music in Moonlight.

Du Bois doesn’t begin the book with this memory of a Bantu woman’s crooning, but rather ends with it. By relocating the (personal) primal scene to the end, he redefines the political possibility for its epistemological rupture. This beginning releases the reader back into the world as a listener whose ears are now pricked, that is, alert to the historical injuries that sustain subject formation. In this way, the formal elision of the song animates the autobiographical locus of the book, its subject and its self. In other words, it is a locus that has to be displaced in order to be represented.  This displacement is not merely symbolic, owing to the structure of language as such, but to or the real displacement of exile, the forcible entry into an imperial or colonizing language while one’s mother tongue is extracted, stolen, or erased.

Door of No Return, Cape Coast Castle, Ghana, Image by Flickr User Greg Neate

Here, I point to black feminism and its transformative use of psychoanalysis. Spillers begins her intensely psychoanalytic essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” with Du Bois’ prediction for a 20th century that will be defined by “the problem of the color line.” But she argues the color line is a “spatiotemporal configuration” to which must be added another and weightier thematic: the revelation of the figure of the “black woman,” i.e. a “particular figuration of the split subject that psychoanalytic theory posits” (65). This split—between the “I” and the “me”—is defined for Lacan by the entry into language. The Freudian primal scene is triangulated by the threat of castration that underwrites the boy’s entry into language. Though imaginary, it was nonetheless literal, localized in genital fantasies. For Lacan, castration is instead a more a generalized cut between the signifier and signified, the conscious and the unconscious. No one, male or female, escapes this cut, and the formation of the “I,” the subject, is contingent upon the separations and losses that language first negotiates. The infant first learns words to articulate pleasure and pain, its separation from things. We forever have the word because we don’t have the thing.

When Spillers takes up psychoanalysis it is to make the radical claim that the New World is “written in blood.” There is not the fantasy of castration, but rather a history of “actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile,” a “theft of the body” that severs it from its motive, will, and desire (67). Spillers insists not on crimes against the body (a more traditional category in psychoanalysis), but what she calls the “flesh” in its capacity to be harmed. Flesh forms the basis of a central distinction between captive and liberated subject-positions. By the primary narrative of flesh, she continues, “we mean its seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship’s hole, fallen, or ‘escaped’ overboard.”

Lacan’s move is de-literalize castration in favor of structure; Spillers (poststructuralist) move is to re-literalize it, but without losing the insight that the cut is language itself, the separation between word and thing. Spillers’ point, however, is that psychoanalysis is incomplete until it can think these transhistorical questions. By this same token, I would argue, sound studies remains incomplete if it cannot transform what we think we are listening for in language. Lacan insists that the word is an irremediable cut or severance from a thing that it nonetheless brings into being through naming. Sound studies misrecognizes itself if it thinks that sound isn’t precisely what is to be located and listened for through the cut between word and thing.

The memory of “Do ba – na co – ba” is both sung and heard from within that cut. These words (that are also not words) are the coming into being of a thing that cannot be named, or is sounded out rather than named. We are suddenly placed into a terrain—and mode of listening—not totally familiar to the origins of psychoanalysis, unless we include Du Bois. We enter into real implications for the primal scene. At the beginning of Souls, Du Bois elliptically notes “the red stain of bastardy,” which designates the rape of black women by white men. Is not the trauma of this stain indirectly registered by Du Bois when listening to “Do ba – na co – ba,” as the crooning of a kidnapped woman? The meaning of its sound is “well understood”—but never put into words. This unnamed Bantu woman’s crooning is a song of becoming violently undifferentiated, a thing, alienated, and forced out of language: it is a song of the flesh. In this way, Du Bois’ political subject position cannot be fully separated from the flesh of the past whose searing and ripping “transfers,” Spillers suggests, across generations. With Du Bois, then, we encounter a subject and bodily ego with memories that are not entirely personal, but rather transpersonal.

For Du Bois, the memory of listening is animated by the fantasy of belonging to a lost language out of which his authorial “voice” and with it, the sorrow songs, emerge. The place of the mother’s voice in psychoanalysis is often one that sweetly echoes back and repeats the self to itself. That is why we are drawn to lullabies; they sonically contain and affirm us.  Barthes famously writes of the “grain of the voice.” “That is what the “grain” would be: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue . . . [Emphasis mine]” (270). But this body is not the flesh. The grain is the voluptuousness of a voice speaking its “mother tongue.”

“Foam” by Flickr User Melissa Emmons

It is not that Du Bois is without voluptuous memories of a mother’s voice, but rather that he elevates a different kind of auditory heritage of the self. He writes of the sorrow songs as “some echo of haunting melody.” There are two orders of remove in what is presupposed by Barthes to be a perfectly reflexive scene. It is not that Du Bois did not as an infant experience this conjectured scene, but that it is doubled by another that does not enter into psychoanalytic discourse without its completion by black feminism, postcolonialism, and other discourses that begin from the premise of historical trauma and stolen mother tongues.

Du Bois was able to listen for what Freud repressed. Du Bois writes down not only the melody as he remembers it, as it has been passed down to him, but also the sounds of her words in Romanized letters that approximate her phonemes. The melody has persisted in spite of the mystery of the words. But what becomes apparent in their approximation, as phonemes, is both retention and loss. The Bantu woman sings in a lost mother tongue; singing, she is in the midst of being forcibly taken away from language, and the song acts as a trace.

Next week, Napolin’s third essay will further explore the psychoanalytic listening Du Bois enacts via The Souls of Black Folk through a reading of Barry Jenkins’ “stunningly lyrical and psychologically complex coming-of-age film, Moonlight,” and its use of wave-sound aural imagery that “continually marks a desire for “return” to maternal undifferentiation and oneness, and yet. . .provides the space for two embodied memories that cannot be compassed by traumatic separation.” 

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 parleFifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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

Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death“–Julie Beth Napolin

Listening to and as Contemporaries: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud–Julie Beth Napolin

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About napolinjb

Assistant Professor, Literary Studies, Eugene Lang College, The New School

2 responses to “(T)racing Mother Listening: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud”

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