At the start of The Soprano’s sixth season, in the wake of being accidentally shot by his dementia-suffering uncle, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano enters a coma-induced dreamstate in which he reimagines his life as a successful precision optics salesman. A show interested in Freudian psychology, The Sopranos is full of dream sequences, but this one stands out as the longest and most frustrating, as first-time viewers must watch as the hour-long plotline follows Tony’s convoluted dream while his family waits in agony at his hospital bedside. Within the dream sequence, Tony awakens to find himself at a sales conference, where he has mistakenly taken someone else’s briefcase, and he attempts to find its rightful owner. Despite the frustrating circumstances, Tony has lost his tough, mob boss demeanor: instead, he’s professional, polite, and patient, qualities that the former Tony rarely exhibits throughout the show’s six seasons.
But what immediately strikes me about this dream sequence is the sudden loss of Tony’s thick Jersey accent. Gone is the fast-paced speech filled with dropped ‘r’s’ and long ‘a’s’ and ‘o’s’. Instead, Tony’s way of speaking is relatively accentless, aligning with what is considered a neutral North American accent. By dreaming of himself as an upwardly mobile, white-collar worker, Tony has not only imagined a new career, he’s also imagined a new way of speaking, one that lacks any clear markers of region, class, or ethnicity. This transformation ultimately tethers Tony’s New Jersey accent to his identity as an Italian American mobster with working-class roots, and it reinforces the idea that speech is indicative of one’s class. The dream sequence is one instance in which television constructs the New Jersey accent as signifying a certain brand of whiteness—not quite white trash, but perhaps one step above it, a form of whiteness lacking sophistication, riddled with ignorance and superficial wealth.
Here I examine contemporary television’s construction and performance of the Jersey accent in order to understand what it confers about class status and ethnic identity. As others have argued, New Jersey dialects are actually quite eclectic, though contemporary television tends to represent the state’s accent as defined by long vowels and quick, poorly articulated speech:
I’m interested in how television shows such as The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and Real Housewives of New Jersey, among others, construct the Jersey accent as a homogenous indicator of ethnicity and social class. Within these predominantly white shows, the Jersey accent is associated with whiteness, situating characters at a distance from dialects susceptible to scrutiny and violence, such as nonwhite immigrant accents or who embody what Nina Sun Eidsheim calls sonic blackness, but it also signifies that these characters do not come from respectable backgrounds or generational wealth.
New Jersey has served as a popular setting for contemporary television, and reality television in particular has capitalized on the state’s materialistic and ostentatious reputation. As Alisha Gaines argues, reality television has a “full-blown crush” on the state, as its geography serves as “a stage for class and social passing, a late capital playground of ethnic representation.” MTV’s Jersey Shore is the most well-known reality TV show to emerge out of New Jersey. Although only a few of the show’s main characters originate from the state, they all embrace a stereotypical Jersey aesthetic: the big hair, the tanned bodies, and yes, the accent. Like The Sopranos, Jersey Shore’s Italian American characters claim to have a complicated relationship to whiteness. The characters attempt to reclaim the derogatory term “guido” (or “guidette,” in the case of the show’s female characters) and admit to not fully identifying as white: “I’m not white,” the show’s Nicole Polizzi (Snooki) says at one point. “I’m tan. That’s what I am.”
In Episode 7 of the show’s first season, Snooki meets Keith, a man she’s surprised to have hit it off with not only because he’s not Italian, but also because “he talks like a cowboy.” Yet Keith does not have a Southern accent, as one might expect, but instead speaks in a standard North American accent. Snooki’s assertion that he speaks “like a cowboy,” then, points to not only how accents are perceived (in the eye of the beholder), it also centers and normalizes the characters’ Jersey accents and calls into question how American television audiences have been trained to experience and think about accented subjects.
Predictably, within New Jersey shows, accents and “improper” ways of speaking often become the butt of the joke. For instance, in The Sopranos episode “Cold Stones,” Tony gifts his wife Carmela a Louis Vuitton wallet containing thirty grand in cash. “This is the real Louis Vee-toon,” he assures her, butchering the pronunciation of the French designer’s name. Tony may be able to afford the “real thing” (and then some), but his inability to sonically perform it gives him away: this is not a lifestyle he inherited or was born into; it does not come natural to him.
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In a similar vein, Bravo produces blooper reels of the New Jersey Real Housewives mispronouncing common words (skooers instead of skewers, lopter instead of lobster, bought instead of brought, for instance).
Here, these characters’ mispronunciations are intended to indicate their ignorance and lack of education, echoing the show’s hints that their female characters have mob affiliations and primarily live off their husbands’ money. Within the Real Housewives of New Jersey and other Jersey-based shows, commenting on the state’s accent often functions as a way of implying that their characters are not to be taken too seriously, thereby influencing how audiences perceive this way of speaking beyond these shows (see, for instance, this Reddit thread).
As it pertains to whiteness and class, the privilege that the Jersey accent does or does not confer is difficult to unpack. Scholars such as Jennifer Stoever and Shilpa Davé have shown how nonwhite accents are subject to surveillance and violence in ways that white accents are not. Similarly, Christie Zwahlen argues in her Sounding Out! post “Look Who’s Talking, Y’all” that “In contradistinction to ‘foreign’ sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.” But what version of whiteness, and more specifically, Americannes, does the Jersey accent connote? While within the shows examined here, the accent is spoken primarily by characters belonging to immigrant groups that have been encompassed within the category of whiteness (often Italian and Jewish Americans), the legitimacy of these characters’ social class and education level is often under scrutiny. These characters’ interest in flashy outfits, gold jewelry, and French Chateau style decor (you know it when you see it) is represented as trashy and artificial, a performance of wealth rather than the actual embodiment of it.
In many ways, the “improperness” of the Jersey accent becomes another way of indicating that these characters are not highly educated and therefore their words, thoughts, and even their wealth, are deserving of suspicion. And a show like The Sopranos, in which most characters have organized crime affiliations, confirms that this suspicion is well-warranted. Indeed, this is not the whiteness or social status assumed to accompany standard English or American accents.
Unsurprisingly, these shows’ centering of middle-class whiteness and its sonic registers ignores the disparity that exists across New Jersey’s geographies. While the state is one of the nation’s wealthiest, it’s also home to poorer cities of color that continue to suffer from the effects of suburbanization and neoliberal urban development. For example, scholars such as Kevin Mumford and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas show how a city like Newark (a frequent setting on The Sopranos) has been heavily shaped by inequitable and volatile racial politics. And yet, the shows examined here eschew these socioeconomic and racial differences, erasing New Jersey’s communities of color from the state’s cultural discourses.
In an episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder expresses her fear that her Irish accent makes her “sound like an immigrant,” to which city treasurer Nucky Thompson responds, “But we’re all immigrants, are we not?” While his response echoes the assimilationist myth of the U.S.-as-melting-pot, it hits on something precise about New Jersey: as the state with the third-largest immigrant population, the homogeneity of the region’s accent is largely a construct. While contemporary television presents audiences with an all-encompassing Jersey accent, in actuality, the state’s diversity makes it nearly impossible to pin down exactly what New Jersey “sounds like.” Examining New Jersey’s representations in popular television reveals how the accent has become one of the state’s most prominent and recognizable features, and shows how these representations have the potential to reductively categorize an entire population.
Featured image: “Memorial Day Weekend” by Flickr user SurFeRGiRL30, CC-BY-2.0
Shannon Mooney is a PhD student in English and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut in 2018. Shannon studies contemporary multi-ethnic U.S. literature, television, and film, with a focus on cultural geography and critical race theory. Her work examines how multi-ethnic writers and artists from New Jersey engage with the state’s natural and industrial landscapes to make sense of their positions as political and historical subjects. Shannon is also the Creative Director of Paperbark Literary Magazine, a publication rooted in sustainability and environmental justice.
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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 Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron 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 first of an interwoven trilogy of essays) by Julie Beth Napolin explores Du Bois and Freud as lived contemporaries exploring entangled notions of melancholic listening across the Veil.
–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.
When W.E.B. Du Bois began the first essay of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) with a bar of melody from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” he paired it with an epigraph taken from a poem by Arthur Symons, “The Crying of Water”:
O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
A listener, the poem’s speaker can’t be sure of the source of the sound, whether it is inward or outward. Something of its sound is exiled and resonates with Symons’ biographical position as a Welshman writing in English, an imperial tongue. At the heart of the poem is a meditation on language, communication, and listening. Personified, the water longs to be understood and sounds out the listener’s own interiority that struggles to be communicated. The poem’s speaker hears himself in the water, but he is nonetheless divided from it. If he could understand the source of the sound in a suppressed or otherwise unavailable memory, the speaker might be put back together. But listening all night long, that understanding does not come.
Together, the poem and song serve as a circuitous opening to Du Bois’ “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” an essay that grounds itself in Du Bois’ training as a sociologist to detail “the color line,” which Du Bois takes to be the defining problem of 20th century America. The color line is not simply a social and economic problem of the failed projects of Emancipation and Reconstruction, but a psychological problem playing out in what Du Bois is quick to name “consciousness.” As the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895, Du Bois had studied with psychologist William James, famous for coining the phrase “the stream of thought” in his modernist opus, The Principles of Psychology (1890). In her study of pragmatism and politics in Du Bois, Mary Zamberlin describes how James encouraged his students to listen to lectures in the way that one “receives a song” (qtd. 81). In his techniques of writing, Du Bois adopts and reinforces the paramount place of intuition and receptivity in James’ thought to conjoin otherwise opposed concepts. Demonstrated by the opening epigraphs themselves, Du Bois’ techniques often trade in a lyricism that stimulates the reader’s multiple senses.
I argue that Du Bois surpasses James by thinking through listening consciousness in its relationship to what we now call trauma. While I will remark upon the specific place of the melody in Du Bois’ propositions, I want to focus on the more generalized opening of his book in the sounds of suffering, crying, and what Jeff T. Johnson might call “trouble.” The contemporary understanding of trauma, as a belated series of memories attached to experiences that could not be fully grasped in their first instance, comes to us not from the scientific discipline of psychology, but rather psychoanalysis.
Among the field’s first progenitors, Sigmund Freud, was a contemporary of Du Bois. Though trained as a medical doctor, Freud sought to free the concept of the psyche from its anatomical moorings, focusing in particular on what in the human subject is irrational, unconscious, and least available to intellectual mastery. His thinking of trauma became most pronounced in the years following WWI, when he observed the consequences of shell-shock. Freud discovered a more generalizable tendency in the subject to go over and repeat painful experiences in nightmares. Traumatic repetition, he noted, is a subject struggling to remember and to understand something incredibly difficult to put into words. At the heart of Freud’s methods, of course, was listening and the observations it afforded, grounding his famous notion of the “talking cure.” Because trauma is so often without clear expression, Freud listened to language beyond meaning, beyond what can be offered up for scientific understanding.
The beginning of Souls, along with its final chapter on “sorrow songs,” slave song or spirituals, tells us that Du Bois’ project shared that same auditory core. Du Bois was listening to consciousness, that is, developing a theory of a listening (to) consciousness in an attempt to understand the trauma of racism and the long, drawn-out historical repercussions of slavery. Importantly, however, Du Bois’ meditation on trauma precedes Freud’s. But Du Bois’ thinking also surpasses Freud in beginning from the premise that trauma is the sine qua non of theorizing racism, which makes itself felt not only outwardly in social and economic structures, but inwardly in consciousness and memory.
Du Bois claimed that he hadn’t been sufficiently Freudian in diagnosing white racism as a problem of irrationality. He didn’t mean by this that Freud himself made such a diagnosis, but rather that Freud was correct in refusing to underestimate what is least understandable about people. Freud’s thinking, however, remained mired in racist thinking of Africa. Though he claimed to discover a universal subject in the structure of the psyche—no one is free from the unconscious—racist thinking provided the language for the so-called “primitive” part of the human being in drives. This primitivism shaped Freud’s myopic thinking of female sexuality, famously remarking that female sexuality is the “Dark Continent,” i.e. unavailable to theory. Freud drew the phrase from the imperialist travelogues of Henry Morton Stanley in the same moment that Du Bois was turning to Africa to find what he called, both with and against Hegel, a “world-historical people.” As I argue, Du Bois found in the music descended from the slave trade not only a “gift” and “message” to the world, but the ur-site for theorizing trauma.
Ranjana Khanna has shown how colonial thinking was the precondition for Freudian psychoanalysis. Anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, for example, both took up and resisted Freud when he elaborated the effects of racism as the origin of black psychopathology, i.e. feelings of being split or divided. Du Bois, like Fanon after him, was hearing trauma politically as a structural event. The complex intellectual biography of Du Bois, which includes a time of studying (in German) at Berlin’s Humboldt University, mandated that he took from European philosophical interlocutors what he needed, creating a hybrid yet decidedly new theory of listening consciousness. That hybridity is exemplified by the opening of his book, an antiphony between two disparate sources bound to each other across the Atlantic through what I will call hearing without understanding. In this post, I ask what Du Bois can tell us about psychoanalytic listening and its ongoing potential for sound studies and why Freud had difficultly listening for race.
“Psychoanalysis . . . , more than any twentieth-century movement,” writes Eli Zaretsky in Political Freud, “placed memory at the center of all human strivings toward freedom” (41). He continues, “By memory I mean no so much objective knowledge of the past or history but rather the subjective process of mastering the past so that it becomes part of one’s identity.” In 1919, Freud gave a name to the experience resounding for Du Bois in Symons’ poem “The Crying of Water:” “melancholia.” Unlike mourning after the death of a loved one, whose aching and cries pass with time, melancholia is an ongoing, integral part of subjects who have lost more inchoate things, such as nation or an ideal. This loss, Freud contended, could in fact be constitutive of identity, or the “ego,” Latin for “I” (“is it I? Is it I?” Symons asks). In mourning, one knows what has been lost; in melancholia, one can’t totally circumscribe its contours.
Zaretsky details the way that Freudianism, particularly after its rapid expansion in the US after WWI, became a resource for the transformation of African American political and cultural consciousness, playing a pronounced role in the Harlem Renaissance, the Popular Front, and anti-imperialist struggles. Zaretsky rightly positions Du Bois and his 1903 text as the beginning of a political and cultural transformation, but it is an anachronism to suggest that Freudianism contributed to Du Bois’ early work. Not only does Du Bois’ analysis of “The Crying of Water” predate Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” by nearly two decades, the two thinkers were contemporaries. In the years that Freud was writing his letters to Wilhelm Fliess, which became the body of his first book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Du Bois was compiling his previous publications for The Souls of Black Folk, along with writing a new essay to conclude it, “The Sorrow Songs,” a sustained reflection on melancholia and its cultural reverberations in song. 1903 is the year of Souls compilation, not composition.
Du Bois’ thinking of a racialized listening consciousness is not only contemporary to Freud, but also fulfills and outstrips him. To approach Du Bois and Freud as contemporaries involves positioning them as listeners on different, but not opposing sides of what Du Bois calls the “Veil.” It is the psychological barrier traumatically instantiated by racialization, which Du Bois famously describes in the first chapter of Souls. The Veil, Jennifer Stoever describes, is both a visual and auditory figure, the barrier through which one both sees and hears others.
To better define the Veil, Du Bois—like Frederick Douglass before him—returns to a painful childhood scene that inscribed in his memory the violence of racial difference and social hierarchy. Early works of African American literature often turn to memoir, writing their elided subjectivity into history. But we miss something if we don’t recognize there a proto-psychoanalytic gesture. In the middle of a sociological, political essay, Du Bois writes of the painful memory of a little white girl rejecting his card, a gift. In this, we can recognize the essential psychoanalytic gesture of returning to the traumatic past of the individual as a forge for self-actualization in the present.
As Paul Gilroy has described, Du Bois’ absorption of Hegel’s thought while at Humboldt cannot be underestimated, particularly in terms of the famous master-slave dialectic. In this dialectic, the slave-consciousness emerges as victorious because the master depends on him for his own identity, a struggle that Hegel described as taking place within consciousness. Like Hegel, Zaretsky notes, Du Bois understood outward political struggle to be bound to “internal struggle against . . . psychic masters” (39). I would state this point differently to note that Du Bois’ traumatic experience as a raced being had already taught him the Hegelian maxim: the smallest unit of being is not one, but two. For Hegel, the slave knows something the master doesn’t: I am only complete to the extent that I recognize the other in myself and that the other recognizes me in herself. That is the essential lesson that an adult Du Bois gleans from the memory of the little girl who will not listen to him. He recognizes that she, too, is incomplete.
The essential difference between psychoanalysis and the Hegelian thrust of Du Bois’ essay, however, is that while a traditional analysand seeks individual re-making of the past—not only childhood, but a historical past that shapes an ongoing political present– Du Bois emphasizes the collective and in ways that cannot be reduced to what Freud later calls the “group ego.” If we restore the place of Du Bois at the beginnings of psychoanalysis and its ways of listening to ego formation, then we find that race, rather than being an addendum to its project, is at its core.
We can begin by turning to a paradigmatic scene for psychoanalytic listening, the one that has most often been taken up by sound studies: the so-called “primal scene.” In among the most famous dreams analyzed by Freud, Sergei Pankejeff (a.k.a. the “Wolf Man”) recalls once dreaming that he was lying in bed at night near a window that slowly opened to reveal a tree of white wolves. Silent and staring, they sat with ears “pricked” (aufgestellt). Pricked towards what? The young boy couldn’t hear, but he sensed the wolves must have been responding to some sound in the distance, perhaps a cry.
In “The Dream and the Primal Scene” section of “From the History of An Infantile Neurosis” (1914/1918), Freud concluded that the dream was grounded in the young boy’s traumatic experience of witnessing his parents having sex. Calling this the “primal scene,” Freud conjectured that there must have been an event of overhearing sounds the young boy could not understand. In the letters he exchanged with Fliess, Freud had begun to attend to the strange things heard in childhood as the basis for fantasy life and with it, sexuality.
The primal scene is therefore crucial for Mladen Dolar’s theory in A Voice and Nothing More when he pursues the implications of an unclosed gap between hearing and understanding. In the Wolf Man’s case, it is impossible, Freud writes, for “a deferred revision of the impressions…to penetrate the understanding.” In Dolar’s estimation, the deferred relation between hearing and understanding defines sexuality and is the origin of all fantasy life. This gap in impressions cannot be closed or healed, and, for Jacques Lacan it also orients the failure of the symbolic order to bring the imaginary order to language. From this moment forward, psychoanalytic theory argues the subject is “split,” listening in a dual posture for the threat of danger and the promise of pleasure. Following Lacan, Dolar, Michel Chion, and Slavoj Žižek return to the domain of infantile listening—listening that occurs before a person has fully entered into speech and language—to explain the effects of the “acousmatic,” or hearing without seeing.
After Freud, the phrase “primal scene” has taken on larger significance as a traumatic event that, while difficult to compass, nonetheless originates a new subject position that makes itself available to a collective identity and identification. The original meaning of hearing sexual and libidinal signals without understanding them, I would suggest, holds sway. Psychoanalytic modes of listening, particularly if restored to its political origins in racism, offer resources for what it means to listen beyond understanding, but such thinking of race immediately folds into intersectional thinking of gender and sexuality. Consider the place of the traumatic memory of the little girl who rejects the card. In The Sovereignty of Quiet, Kevin Quashie returns to Du Bois’ primal scene to note how the scene takes place in silence, for she rejects it, in Du Bois’ terms, “with a glance.” I want to expand upon this point to note that where there is silence, there is nonetheless listening. Du Bois is listening for someone who will not speak to him; he desires to be listened to and the card—a calling card—figures a kind of address.
It has gone largely unnoticed that, to the extent that the scene is structured by the master-slave dialectic, it is also structured by desire. This scene of trauma is shattering for both boy and girl. The desire coursing through the scene is suppressed in Du Bois’ adult memory in favor of its meaning for him as a political subject. What would it mean to recollect, on both sides, the trace of sexual (and interracial) desire? In “Resounding Souls: Du Bois and the African American Literary Tradition,” Cheryl Wall notes the scant place for black women in the political imaginary of this text. This suppression, I would argue, already begins in the memory of the girl who appears under the sign of the feminine more generally. The fact that she is white, however, casts a greater taboo over the scene and therefore allows more for a suppression of sexuality in his memory. Du Bois emerges as a political agent disentangled from black women—with one notable exception, the maternal, and this exception demands that we listen with ears pricked to “The Sorrow Songs,” as Du Bois’ early contribution to the psychoanalytic theory of melancholia.
Next week, part two will further explore The Souls of Black Folk as a “displaced beginning of psychoanalytic modes of listening,” emphasizing the African melodies once sung by his grandfather’s grandmother that Du Bois’s hears as a child, as “a partial memory and a mode of overhearing.”
Featured Images: “Nobody Knowns the Trouble I See” from The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 1, “W.E.B. Du Bois” by Winold Reiss (1925), “Sigmund Freud” by Andy Warhol (1962)
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).
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