Archive by Author | Gus Stadler

On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

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

Pushing Play: What Makes the Portable Cassette Recorder Interesting?

"Change the Speed": image from the "Vintage Kids" archive of flickr user theirhistory

One of my earliest memories of sound recording is one of my earliest memories, period: an isolated image of my own index and middle finger trying to push down the “record” and “play” buttons on my father’s portable cassette tape recorder. More prominent than the visual element of this memory is the haptic one: I can still call up the sensation of the effort required to make the red button go down and latch and the stress on the top joint of my index finger as the resistance bent it backward. Also still with me is a trace sense of the threat of sharp pain, as if at some point previous I had been wounded (perhaps pinched?) by these buttons. How young must I have been to have experienced this degree of opposition from such a small, unassuming device? And whence this desire to persist in the face of it?And: how and where does this object–so unprepossessing with its five big buttons, volume slider, cartridge tray, and little speaker–fit into sound studies and the history of sound recording technology?

There’s a small, rich, growing body of work on tape recording–including work by scholars as different as Kathleen Hayles, Steven Connor, Michael Davidson, and this blog’s doyen, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman–but almost invariably it focuses on the reel-to-reel recorder, the device the cassette recorder was meant to simplify and miniaturize, at the expense of sound quality. The reel-to-reel was a vital contributor to the development of stereo and hi-fi hobbyism; it was also the mechanism at the center of a series of bold modernist literary experiments with tape recording by Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, David Antin, and others.

Aside from Andy Warhol’s use of it to tape huge swaths of his everyday life (in 1965, he “wrote” a novel consisting of 24 largely consecutive hours of transcribed cassettes) the cassette recorder has no such avant-garde pedigree. The name of the first model, the Norelco Carry-Corder 150, which appeared in 1963, shows the primary focus of its manufacturers’ vision.  Ads and trade journal articles from around this time touted the ease with which the device could be toted around on a vacation with the aim of producing an “audio album” of the trip. Doubtless, such albums were made and some may even still exist. But I suspect that the most vibrant history of the Carry-Corder and its descendants lies in the device’s easy adapability into the play world of children. As I and many others of my generation remember it, the pleasure of playing with the device was the way it instigated various sorts of performance, usually based in mimicry of ones we’d consumed through other electronic media. In a manner not unlike Warhol, we created our own little media empires: Dj-ing, news announcing, sportscasting, hosting talk shows with the baby and the dog as guests, singing like Cher on TV, re-enacting TV comedy sketches, recording one’s own comedy sketches, and on and on.

Child's play?: Young World BIC-202 Cassette Recorder

It’s not obvious how sound figures in the context of children’s play. Certainly, the quality with which the tape recorder recorded and played back sound mattered little, if at all. What mattered was the way the device initiated and constructed scenes, provided roles to play. Analogously, as David E. James has noted, one of the most powerful aspects of Warhol’s practice of bringing his Carry-Corder 150 everywhere he went (he was an early adopter, purchasing one in 1964) was that it “ma(de) performance inevitable” and “constitute(d) being as performance” (Allegories of Cinema, page 69). Even playback itself was a matter of secondary interest; how many times do you think I listened to the tape of myself “broadcasting” two innings of a random mid-70s Mets game, delivered as I watched on TV with the sound turned down? My wager is on none. Still, sound is the raison d’etre of the cassette recorder. A few years later, kids might have done similar things with a video camera, but to a lot of kids, the early mass-marketed versions of that device felt much more formal, complicated, authoritative. That was the instrument through which the “official” history of the family was to be told; the tape recorder picked up the creative fragments, the bored interstices, the embarrassments, the extremes–parts of a world that wasn’t to appear before guests. Plus, the sound-based device actually offered greater reach and flexibility along with more forms of integration into other media like television.

My early memory of the recorder, however, seems more primal.  Given its intensity, it seems clear that the tape recorder served as a vehicle toward several important forms of self-demarcation, helping me to discover and negotiate certain limits: of my body, of my agency vis-à-vis machines, of my relationships to my parents, of my family’s position in a larger social and economic world. (And in fact, the device was an important part of my family’s livelihood, vital to my father’s work as a radio reporter.) In retrospect, I seem almost impossibly young to be left to my own devices with the machine, and I also have a vague sense that I had been violating some prohibition, perhaps a decree that the recorder is “not a toy.” I wonder how much the force of such a decree originated precisely in the ease with which it could and did become a toy.

gramophone, film, typewriter, and cassette tape recorder?

It’s unlikely that Friedrich Kittler was going to list “cassette tape recorder” next in his book title after “gramophone, film, and typewriter.” It’s unlikely he had an image of the device in mind when he wrote his bravura dictum, “media determine our situation.” Some technologies don’t stand up to such sweeping statements, toward which media studies sometimes seems particularly drawn. Certain devices, I think, necessitate a broadened and diversified understanding of the things both sound and technology do—even things that aren’t “about” sound in a conventional sense. For many historical narratives of sound reproduction, the cassette tape recorder is a regressive device, a drag on the pursuit of greater audio fidelity, with fidelity defined as “presence.” But the qualities of the cassette recorder that make it significant to our field are manifold, and some of them will be qualities that arise out of their adjacency to the central fact of recording and playing back sound. The “forgotten” areas of the history of sound reproduction technologies aren’t the notable failures—the 8-track players, which after all still draw camp-retro interest–but the most mundane successes. The portable cassette tape recorded never truly failed, it just got left back.

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) and co-editor (with Karen Tongson) of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was recently named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is currently working on Andy Warhol’s sound world, Woody Guthrie’s sexuality, and other stuff.

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