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The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?

There have been many heated debates over Arizona’s newly-implemented legislation SB 1070, a law which targets one of the U.S.’s most vulnerable communities, undocumented workers, and makes them subject to deportation, police harassment, and criminalization. However, in the midst of all the shouting, there has been surprisingly little said about what the role of sound will be in the enforcement of this law. Conversations about racial profiling have been predominately limited to visual aspects: skin color, haircuts, and most infamously, footwear selection. However, in order to fully understand the devastating impact of SB 1070, we need to render sonic examples of discrimination as visible as their visual counterparts. In other words, what does “illegality” sound like? And, conversely, how is U.S. citizenship produced through sound? Even though we rarely talk about either of these auditory social constructions, sonic representations of both abound in American culture, and—regardless of constitutionality—Arizona residents will use both to ferret out whom they feel belongs and whom they believe does not.

In other venues, I have termed dominant listening practices in America the listening ear [For those with access to an online Social Text subscription, click here to download the full text of my article, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York]. The listening ear is a phrase that describes mainstream perception. It represents the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, whole deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant, dangerous, and yes, even illegal. Basically, the listening ear is what Judith Butler calls “a constitutive constraint” in Bodies that Matter: a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound. In regards to SB 1070, the listening ear lines up a little too comfortably with the hazy language of “reasonable suspicion” that has been the focus of so much outcry against the law.

Basically, before Judge Susan Bolton declared a temporary injunction against the law on July 28th, 2010, it allowed police to check the immigration status of any one they made a “lawful contact” with, provided that “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien.” Because unspoken, racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through American culture via the listening ear, members of dominant groups may use sound with impunity to forge “reasonable suspicion” about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them (and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them). Certainly the sound of Spanish is at the top of this list; even though the United States does not have an official language, Arizona has enacted multiple strident “English Only” laws, the most recent of which resulted in the removal of a U.S. Census 2010 banner in Prescott, AZ because it included a sentence in Spanish. Beyond the sound of Spanish itself, there is the sound of accented English, and, as Stanford sociologist John Baugh’s work on linguistic profiling bears out, accents can have extreme impact on one’s economic chances in the U.S. as well as one’s sense of belonging. Now, accents may decide whether or not one gets hassled for their papers and detained and—if not a citizen or a legal resident—deported. Undoubtedly, the accent of the Fresno, CA-born American citizen who was asked to show his birth certificate to police at a truck weigh-in station in Arizona in April 2010 had much to do with his subsequent detainment.

In one of few examples to address the sonics of citizenship via language and accent, the ACLU’s recently released video “Would You Ask This Man for His Papers?” utilizes the sound of Spanish to illustrate the potential for auditory markers to determine citizenship status, especially in concert with visual cues like skin color and classed and raced job duties, like landscaping in the Southwest.

The video’s message—that sonic markers of citizenship are just as unreliable as visual ones—hinges on the fact that the man in the video, Roberto Reveles, is not only bilingual, but a prominent, natural born citizen; he has been president of the Arizona Board of Directors of the ACLU since 2006. However, the stark contrast in representation here risks reifying the division between the sound of Spanish as “foreign” and the sound of English as “normal” or “American,” just as it suggests that speakers of Spanish are much more agreeable to the American listening ear when their citizenship status is no longer in question.

The sounds of Spanish, however, are only the most obvious of a whole host of sonic markers of citizenship. The sounds of music are another. The American listening ear lumps musical genres like mariachi, Tejano, salsa, norteña and reggaetón together—regardless of the diverse national origins of the music or its consumers—and the sounds of instruments like the accordion, timbales, and brass horns become metonyms for the presence of Latino/a “Others.” For many monolingual English-speaking U.S. citizens, the increasing numbers of radio stations that broadcast pan-Latin musical genres—there are over 23 in the state of Arizona—sonically symbolize the perceived invasion and encroachment of the undocumented Latino/a “Others” on (white, English) American territory. The film “The Job” (2008), a short by Screaming Frog that satirizes the imagery of immigration in light of America’s most recent economic crash, represents one facet of the ready associations that the dominant American listening ear draws between music, sound, race, and social status.

The parodic twist in “The Job” turns on the association of particular types of music with undocumented workers. Note the sonic contrast between the “serious” sounds of the white corporate atmosphere and the festive stylings of the Latin music—not unimportantly, a “stock” song called “mariachi” that the producers obtained from Royalty Free Music—as well as the expedient way in which the horns function to herald the brown body of the Latino day laborer before viewers see him.

Given these preexisting aural connections, noise laws are a ready site at which SB 1070’s all-important “reasonable suspicion” can be obtained in a manner that circumvents traditional “colorblind” ideas about racial profiling. After all, it isn’t merely the content of a sound that determines whether or not listeners will hear it as “noise,” but also its context—its appearance in time and space. Whereas numerous forms of representation have disciplined the dominant American listening ear to hear mariachi music at El Torito’s Sunday brunch as a pleasant aural form of “local color,” the reaction to hearing a version of said music emanating from the backyard of one’s neighbor late on a Saturday night might be qualitatively and quantitatively different, particularly if the listener is already primed to perceive immigrants and/or people of color as threatening trespassers, no matter what their legal status may be. Historian Peter Bailey describes noise as “sound out of place,” and I cannot think of a more apt description for the aural stakes of illegality in America’s borderlands. In other words, it isn’t just the sound of an accent or the blare of a trumpet that marks someone as a noncitizen—or worse yet, a non-person, as the progenitors of the dehumanizing term “illegal alien” would have it—but where and when the sound appears and what boundaries it is perceived to cross by citizens empowered to lodge noise complaints.

Tellingly, the language of many noise ordinances is just as vague as SB1070, echoing the normative language of “reasonable suspicion” and the hidden classed, raced, gendered, and nationalized standards of the dominant American listening ear. For example, although the noise laws of Phoenix, Arizona can be quite specific—referencing barking dogs, whistling on the streets, and loudspeakers for advertising—they include a general “morals and conduct” clause that allows that “anything which is obnoxious to health, or is indecent, or is offensive to the senses, or is an obstruction to the free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by any considerable number of persons, or unlawfully obstructs any public street, alley, sidewalk or highway is hereby declared a nuisance and may be abated by order of the City Court” (emphasis mine). Clearly, terms like “comfortable” and “offensive” are a socially determined grey area dependent upon which “considerable number of persons” comprise the power base for any given area. It is not a stretch of the imagination to consider how already “Othered” sounds like Spanish accents and Latin music or the sounds of daily life in Latino households that fall outside of the purview of the dominant American listening ear—alternate religious practices, holidays, and customs about children’s play and front/back yard use, for example—can lead to some SB 1070 dime-dropping by one of said “considerable number of persons.” Just ask the predominately Latino gardeners of Los Angeles, CA, who found themselves sonically profiled by wealthy whites who rallied against the sound of the gas-powered leaf blower in 1998, in part to decrease their presence in exclusive neighborhoods. Despite a prominent hunger strike on the steps of city hall by a coalition of Latino gardeners, leaf blowers were deemed illegal in L.A. that same year.

Not surprisingly, there has been an uptick in the battle against noise in the state of Arizona at the same time as the struggle over SB 1070 has heated up. Citizens of cities like Scottsdale and Prescott have been clamoring for tighter noise legislation and increased noise code enforcement in 2010; in language quite similar to SB 1070, one citizen of Scottsdale told the Arizona Republic that police officers should be empowered to “distinguish and make judgment calls as to who is loud and who’s not.” Note the telling slippage between noise and the people who (allegedly) make it.

Interestingly, in spite of the utility of noise laws for implementing SB 1070, the overt demographic target of much Arizona noise legislation has been motorcycle owners, who are among the whitest, wealthiest, malest, and most middleaged populations in the U.S. according to statistics complied by the 2008 Motorcycle Industry Council Owner Survey, and therefore traditionally a group resistant to visual racial profiling—at least in the arena of law enforcement. Perhaps, given Gary L. Kieffner’s claim in “Police and Harley Riders: Discrimination and Empowerment” in the Spring 2009 issue of the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies that the struggle of Harley-Davidson riders had “similarities with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, women’s liberation in the 1970s, and advances by other oppressed minorities,” aggrieved motorcyclists will join hands with the undocumented workers finding themselves on the wrong side of America’s sonic color- line.

Instead of holding my breath, I am going to put at least some of my faith in Sound Strike, a group of artists including Ozomatli, M.I.A., Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, DJ Spooky, Los Tigres del Norte, Kanye West, and Yeasayer among many others devoted to fighting the noise of SB 1070 with the silence of Arizona’s empty concert halls.

The Sound Strike on Facebook

Sound Strike Petition to Stop SB 1070

And it’s not like Public Enemy hasn’t been warning us for years. I’d like to close with their “noisy” rejoinder to Arizona’s refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday back in 1986, “By the Time I Get to Arizona”. DJ Spooky has created a free downloadable remix of the song in the wake of SB 1070 for your listening displeasure. Let the sound strike begin.

P.S. I also want to mention that many artists are choosing to fight SB 1070 through their performances in AZ rather than boycotting the state, most notably Lady Gaga.

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Sounds of Life: Fetal Heartbeat Bills and the Politics of Animacy

June 2018 was marked by the amplification of distant warning sounds regarding the fate of abortion rights in the United States. Although within recent months there have been positive steps forward, such as in Ireland and Argentina, within a broader politics of abortion, the medical procedure remains illegal and inaccessible across large swaths of the globe. Since abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973, anti-abortion advocates have chipped away at the constitutional “right” such that its current status is more of a “privilege.” After a recent victory for “crisis pregnancy centers” (fake clinics), in combination with the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court, the past few weeks have sounded further alarms within the decades-long “abortion wars.” These wars have included not only devastating anti-abortion legislation such as the Hyde amendment, but violence against abortion clinics (including 11 murders and 26 attempted murders) and the quieter yet just as nefarious technologization and romanticization of the fetal heartbeat.

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The “Heartbeat Protection Act” of 2017 (H.R. 490) would make it illegal for physicians to “knowingly perform an abortion: (1) without determining whether the fetus has a detectable heartbeat, (2) without informing the mother of the results, or (3) after determining that a fetus has a detectable heartbeat.” Introduced by the 115th United States Congress, the bill is a nation-wide version of existing, state-level “heartbeat bills” promising to “protect every child whose heartbeat can be heard.” The “Heartbeat Protection Act” would effectively make it illegal for doctors to terminate pregnancies after six or seven weeks’ gestation, at which time a heartbeat typically can be detected. The bill makes it clear that the abortionist, and not the pregnant person, is the moral agent within the context of pregnancy termination: “A physician who performs a prohibited abortion is subject to criminal penalties—a fine, up to five years in prison, or both,” while “A woman [sic] who undergoes a prohibited abortion may not be prosecuted for violating or conspiring to violate the provisions of this bill.” As of May 2018, a total of 59 heartbeat bans have been proposed over the past seven years.

“Heartbeat” bills not only articulate the subjecthood of physicians and the objecthood of pregnant bodies; they also rely on the animating capacity of sound in their efforts to enliven embryos and fetuses. In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Mel Chen describes “animacy” as a “slippery” value problematizing the contemporary biopolitical boundaries between ontological categories dividing “the living” from “the dead” (9). Hierarchies of animacy indicate the ways in which entities perceived to be nonhuman or nonliving, such as monkeys, lead, and toxins, are endowed with racialized and/or gendered “human” qualities through the politicization of language and figuration (The 2007 “lead panic” in the U.S., in which Chinese-manufactured toys were viewed as unidirectional transmitters of racialized toxicity, is an example). The sounds of fetal heartbeats are implicated in the construction of a hierarchy of animacy as they render pregnant bodies less animate. Drawing from Chen in exploring a politics of animacy can help us understand the animating and silencing capacities of reproductive healthcare legislation and restrictions. Within this politics, the fetal heartbeat becomes so loud that it silences the pregnant person.

A sonogram and Doppler visualization, Image by Flickr User DYT, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This silencing and objectification of pregnant bodies occurs not only through anti-abortion legislation but in the sphere of the everyday. The pregnant body becomes animated with the capacity (and expectation) for nurturing and selflessness, while its contents are animated with qualities of potentiality and personhood. As feminist phenomenologist Iris Marion Young points out in an essay on pregnant embodiment (which can be found in her collection On Female Body Experience), the pregnant body not only becomes a synecdochal figuration for heteropatriarchal structures and narratives, but is experienced as “Other” even from a first-person perspective: “in pregnancy I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends and the world begins” (50). Pregnant people can expect to be stared at, to get asked personal or even inappropriate questions, and to have their bodies touched without consent as they move through public space. The presumed ownership over female-presenting bodies is magnified when these bodies are perceived as housing another living being presumed to be the progeny and property of a male “father figure.” The blurred line between internality and externality allows for a further window through which the surveillant male gaze can stare, and through which the sounds of sonic patriarchy can be broadcast.

Image by Flickr User jennykarinaflores, (CC BY 2.0)

The concept of the “male gaze” is at this point well recognized; “sonic patriarchy” can be heard to be its aural counterpart. Sonic patriarchy is a concept I have theorized in order to give name to the domination of a sound world in gendered ways, as well as to the control of gendered bodies via sound. In public space, sonic patriarchy can be heard in the catcalls and whistles and mansplaining that grope their way into the aural space of female and feminine bodies. And, as Christine Ehrick points out, masculine voices can be heard as a signifier of power within a “gendered soundscape.”  Sonic patriarchy can be heard within private space, too; recently, a friend texted me about a roommate’s boyfriend who never bothers to use headphones when listening to music in the living room “even though he doesn’t even live here!” Both the male gaze and sonic patriarchy are misogynist and objectifying forces that shape and control space, demarcating boundaries of safety, mobility, and accessibility for many female and gender-nonconforming bodies. However, these modes of surveillance and control have been discussed primarily through a visual lens within the realm of feminist and queer theory.

The sonification of the male gaze manifests in mundanities, such as the daily catcalls women are subjected to in literally every corner of the world, and in more disturbing contexts such as anti-abortion rhetoric, which I’ve observed through my ethnographic work at abortion clinics throughout the United States. At these demonstrations, the bodies of clinic patients are invaded both literally, with the shouting of the protesters, and figuratively, in the making-public of the figure of the fetus with four-foot-tall posters depicting mangled fetal body parts. Ironically, these inanimate posters animate the figure of the fetus as they lend more humanity and visibility to the imagined contents of a pregnant body; meanwhile the pregnant person fades into a mere backdrop for this spectacle. This voyeurism also occurs sonically, as the protesters ‘give voice to’ imaginary fetuses by yelling “Mommy, mommy don’t kill me!” In the space of the clinic protest, feminized ears exist as gendered and sexualized organs in which masculine vocalizations can penetrate and reverberate. Just as misogynist conceptions of female sexual receptivity frequently ignore the word “no” and the concept of consent itself, these vocalizations ignore the active non-consent of the patients as they persistently rupture their aural space.

The patriarchal control of the sound world, whether on the sidewalk outside an abortion clinic or in a doctor’s office, is a reminder of broader schemes of biopolitical control that have been at play in the U.S. since the late 1970s, when previously apolitical evangelical Christians were drawn into political conversations through the transformation of abortion access into a “moral issue.” Within this discourse, the politicized female body is assumed to be perpetually pre-pregnant, a muted object housing a potential subject. At abortion clinic protests, the seemingly mundane act of “exercising free speech” vocalizes not only an opposition to abortion as a medical procedure, but also an assertion of the four decades of “moral authority” that have limited access to and availability of this medical procedure through a sustained regulation of the bodily autonomy of female citizens. The fetus is animated in service of this authority through tactics that range from fetal heartbeat bans to the amplification of an “acousmatic fetus” at a North Carolina abortion clinic protest:

When it comes to anti-abortion politics, the rhetoric hinges on the making public of the internal space of the womb in order to more effectively level the male gaze (and its listening ear) at the figure of the fetus. Anti-abortion rhetoric relies on the dissolution of boundaries between the public and the private; remember that the right to an abortion was eventually won in 1973 not on the grounds of bodily autonomy but on the constitutional “right to privacy.” These boundaries perpetuate gendered divisions of space that deem public space the space of men, while relegating women to the “private space” of the home. Female-presenting bodies are therefore seen (and heard) to be out of place in public space, even when the contents of their bodies are not. And when the focus always lies on these possible contents, female-presenting bodies are always assumed to be pregnant. Their bodies come to represent what Lauren Berlant, in her 1994 essay titled “America, ‘Fat,’ the Fetus,” describes as “fetal motherhood” (147). Within this representation, the female body possesses value only through the promise of its eventual maternal status. Within a patriarchal economy of reproduction and citizenship, the female body accrues value through its capacity to sustain and revitalize “the nation”; Berlant points out that pro-life rhetoric has in its turn revitalized the female body as a symbol of nation-formation.

Berlant argues that political and cultural rhetoric in the U.S. transforms pregnant people into babies and unborn babies into full-on “persons” through this process of “fetal motherhood.” She details this process and its implications within a broader sociopolitical discourse that hinges not only on dehumanizing tactics that reduce women to objects, but on the expectation and exploitation of the all-too-human capacity for nurturing and motherhood that society demands from women. This rhetoric is meant to mobilize the figure of the fetus in what Berlant refers to as “the nationwide competition between the mother and the fetus that the fetus, framed as a helpless, choiceless victim, will always lose” since “the fetus has no voice” (150-151). Providing a voice for the fetus has been a primary tactic in anti-abortion strategies within this “competition.” Animating the fetus’s body and voice therefore always involves the erasure and silencing of the pregnant person, who, in the state of “fetal motherhood,” is flattened into an entity as two-dimensional as an anti-abortion protester’s photoshopped poster. And just as dominant narratives and vocabularies for sonic reproduction frequently neglect the gendered implications of the term, broader political concepts of “reproduction” listen more closely to the product of motherhood than to mothers themselves.

Image by Flickr user TR Haun, (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The heartbeat bans are only one component of the anti-abortion trend in the U.S., where 288 abortion restrictions have been enacted since 2010. These bills typically deny the agency of pregnant people, while affirming the moral agency of doctors and the “personhood” of embryos and fetuses. Yet that has not stopped pregnant people, and particularly pregnant people of color, from enduring punishment. The most well-known case is probably that of Purvi Patel, an Indian American woman who self-aborted in 2015 and was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison after an Indiana jury found her guilty of feticide (She served about a year and a half before a judge reduced her sentence to eighteen months, resulting in her release). Within the dominant hierarchy of animacy in contemporary reproductive rights, the agency of potential persons is amplified so loudly that it drowns out the agency of actual people existing in the world. Control of the sound world doesn’t just mirror visual control over bodies and the worlds they move through, it enacts new and arguably more invasive limits on these bodies. Whether clamoring for an audience on the sidewalks of public space, or quietly sonifying potential life via Doppler technology, the sounds of sonic patriarchy continue to interrupt feminist endeavors for autonomy and agency.

Featured Image: March for Life, Washington DC 2015 by Flickr User American Life League, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rebecca Lentjes is an NYC-based writer and gender equality activist. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, TEMPO Quarterly Review of New Music, Bachtrack, and I Care If You Listen. By day she researches anti-abortion protests as an ethnomusicology PhD student at Stony Brook University and works as an editor and translator at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.

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