Sonic Lessons of the Covid-19 Soundscape
It’s understandable to resist reading or thinking about Covid in late-2021, even as the Delta variant’s new surges are making headlines around the world. Covid has surrounded and overwhelmed us for over a year, and many people’s reluctance to engage meaningfully with it at this time is fueled by feelings of fatigue, mental exhaustion, and frustration. However, I urge in this post that we have a continued responsibility to sustain our sonic engagement and listen to what the Covid-19 soundscape teaches us.
Covid-19, as most of us now know now, is a virus caused by the coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2. While the symptoms of Covid-19 are many and varied, one symptom seemed most vital and censorious—a nagging and persistent dry cough that became referred to as the “Covid cough” in everyday vernacular. The Covid cough became an intrusive and yet all too familiar presence in the Covid soundscape—an isolated acoustic environment that allows us to study its characteristics. For instance, investigations within the Covid soundscape have studied the noise annoyances of traffic, neighbors, and personal dwellings; have recorded the quieting of the usually bustling streets of New York City; have researched whale stress hormones linked to less noise pollution in our ocean waters; and have analyzed the reception and aural imagery of sirens. I seek to add to this research by bringing the sounds of the Covid body (or a body perceived to have Covid) into the larger soundscape conversation.
It is of vital importance to attend to the Covid soundscape while we are still in it because the Covid soundscape is bound by time and place and is ever-changing. Once Covid is eradicated, our access to the sounds surrounding it disappear as well. So, I dwell in the soundscape where the Covid cough is still an everyday reality. With the Covid cough present in approximately sixty percent of Covid cases according to WebMD, the cough quickly became the virus’s warning bell, identifying who might be infected with the virus. In the early days of the viruses’ rapid spread in the United States, coughing became an acoustic red flag—a sign that danger could be near. So much about the virus and its spread was unknown, and the uncertainty heightened desires for control and reassurance. Because of this, we attended to coughing in ourselves and others, consciously and unconsciously, in ways we probably never had before.
All of this auditory attention focused on coughing is a process of listening. Different from hearing—perceiving sounds—listening requires attentiveness and consideration. Listening to sounds, as Ceraso states, “influences our feelings and behaviors as we move through the world” (176). I, like Eckstein and other sound scholars, insist that sound is an argument and that sounds have persuasive power. Sounds can evoke different responses from different people—perhaps your favorite song elicits painful memories for someone else. Listening then, can be personal. However, sound studies scholars know, and Covid-19 has amplified, that listening is also shaped by social and cultural contexts (Rice, “Listening”). During the pandemic, people listened to bodies in ways that were shaped by the news, the medical community, the culture, and the environment. While listening as a medical practice is used to diagnose and treat, the listening I refer to here is not one of compassionate care, but rather a practice of fear, surveillance, and othering.
For many people—in the United States, particularly white, hetero, cis-gendered, able-bodied, people—their bodily sounds came under social and cultural scrutiny for the first time——bringing up issues of autonomy and self-control. “It’s just allergies,” folks muttered while passing someone in the grocery store, just as a cough that could no longer be suppressed escaped their lips. Suddenly, as suspicious eyes were cast every which way, people felt compelled to disclose their medical histories to complete strangers in order to have their coughs—their bodily sounds—be deemed socially acceptable and their public presence allowable. Shildrick reminds us that bodies are leaky, but Western medicine and practice reinforce European-descended cultural teachings that our bodily boundaries should be secure (i.e. not leaky) and that otherness should be excluded. The “Covid cough” taught many of us for the first time that our bodies are leaky, noisy, and permeable, and they are not always under our command. Listening to our bodies took on an all-new meaning as we attended to our bodily sounds in hyper-vigilant ways.
Attending to the leaky, noisy nature of bodies, however, was certainly not new to everyone. Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line details the hypervigilance and rigid compliance long demanded of Black and brown bodies—often violently—by the white listening ear’s norms regarding “propriety” and personhood. Ehrick’s concept of the “gendered soundscape” thinks through surveillance in regard to female-presenting bodies and vocal gender. Casillas’s notion of “listening loud(ly)” while Chicanx, Martin’s Black feminist soundwalk methodology , and Blake’s discussion of the “gas station voice” many trans people take on to protect themselves from attack reminds us that the stakes for surveillance are higher at the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality, accent, and citizenship status, but that resistance can also be also quite powerful.
For individuals with health conditions, impairments, or disabilities, too, concerns about control and disclosure are not recent issues, as their bodies have long been listened to in ways non-disabled bodies simply have not. For example, for a time after my mother had emergency surgery for colon cancer, her body required the use of a colostomy bag. One day she and I were shopping in a department store when a sales clerk heard my mother’s body leak (i.e. make sounds that we’ve been taught to believe are only acceptable in private spaces and bathrooms). The sales associate listened to my mother’s body in a way that bordered on disgust and looked at her in a way that beckoned my mom to justify her leaky, fallible body.
This kind of listening—the surveillance of others’ bodies—is used to regulate and control bodies, and is a long-standing tradition in disability history. For instance, St. Pierre highlights the embodied act of stuttered speech that is not only constructed by cultural norms but that challenges our cultural fantasy of the body as an invisible channel for communication and disrupts the disabled/able-bodied binary. Mills’s research on deafness and hearing technologies explores the irony and paradox that hearing aids and cochlear implants were invented to “treat” the invisible disability of deafness, but yet visibly mark their wearers. And while not explicitly writing of disabled bodies, Booth and Spencer contend that non-vocal bodily sounds are rhetorical and therefore create rhetorical challenges and provoke us into attempted management of the sounds our body produces. Individuals with impairments, diseases, and disabilities have long been listened to, scrutinized, and surveilled in these ways. Such listening is culturally bound and rooted in the ableist myth that bodies should be self-contained and controlled at all times.
As the Covid-landscape meant that our ability to visually surveil bodies was diminished due to masks, barriers, and plexiglass partitions, our impulse to sonically surveil became heightened. Thus, many of us listened differently. Our fears of being surveilled were heightened by the fear of the Other—in this case, the fear of being othered as unwell. Our anxiety about the Covid cough was attached to ableism and the horror of being perceived as sick because, as Davis states, the “nightmare of the body is one that is deformed, maimed, mutilated, broken, diseased” (Normalcy: Link 7). The Covid cough reminded all of us that we are not as self-controlled and autonomous as we would like to think, and that we are all capable of being–or of becoming–a dissed (diseased or disabled), othered body, if we are not already.
But what if we could revisit the Covid cough and consciously listen to it in other, less fear-driven ways? If we move from listening to the cough as a surveillance practice and situate our listening as a critical rhetorical practice–a practice that examines the relationship of discourse and power and advocates for social change–then we can begin to think about what the Covid cough can teach us. Novak and Sakakeeny claim that sound only becomes known through its materiality. The Covid cough is indelibly material and embodied; it requires lungs and airways, breath and mucus. The Covid cough, distinguishable from other coughs, was described similarly by medical professionals around the world, reminding us that while listening is a highly cultured act, our sound bodies are comprised of blood, bones, and organs—substance that tethers our listening practices to a material body. We are, as Eidsheim claims in Sensing Sound, interconnected in material terms: “we cannot exist merely as singular individuals” (20). The stuff and guts of our material bodies reminds us of our connectivity, of our shared humanity, of our oneness.
The sound of the Covid cough, then, assures us of our vulnerability—a vulnerability precipitated by our lived, material body. It is important to note that not all individuals have been equally vulnerable. Individuals who are immunocompromised and essential workers, for instance, were much more susceptible to being exposed to the Covid-19 virus, as was anyone unable to work to home and many Black and brown Americans made more vulnerable by years of racist neglect by the nation’s health care system. But, still, no one is invincible. The sounds of the Covid-19 soundscape reify this truth and reinforce that through our material bodies, we are interconnected; we are all sound, and sounding, bodies.
Covid-19 brought, and is still bringing, daily horrors. The sounds of the Covid-19 soundscape are not yet absent from our consciousness or our communities. My hope is that by re-immersing ourselves into its soundscape, we can continue to remember that our fight against Covid-19 is a collective one and that we all have a shared responsibility toward our fellow humans. It is also important for sound studies to think critically and rhetorically about normalized listening practices and how those practices shape cultural understandings of what it means to be sick or disabled. Listening is not only an embodied practice; it also has bodily implications. While the Covid-19 soundscape heightened our awareness of our own vulnerability and, for some, their fears of “the other”—and (hopefully) some reflexivity on how one’s own listening can drive practices of othering—it also reassured many of our connectivity, for better or worse.
We remember those whose lives were lost to Covid-19. We listen to honor them and we listen to learn. . .and hopefully we can listen to one another with renewed empathy to build new collectivities that will forever change the Covid soundscape, along with the many other intersecting inequities that collectively brought us here too.
Featured Image: Coronavirus, Playground on Lockdown, Sheffield, UK, Image by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Sarah Mayberry Scott (Ph.D., University of Memphis) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Her research centers on representations and rhetorics of deafness. Scott is particularly interested in how sound impacts the Deaf community and how multi-modal literacies can be of particular interest and utility. She explores these issues in her works, “Re-Orienting Sound Studies’ Aural Fixation: Christine Sun Kim’s ‘Subjective Loudness,’” (2017), “Disability Gets Dissed: How Listening Rhetorically with Cultural Humility Amplifies the Concerns of Disability Culture,” (2021), and “Toward a More Just Rhetorical Criticism Through Situated Listening” (in press).
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my mother’s voice, my father’s eye, and my other body: the sound of deaf photographs— Cara Cardinale
SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening--Airek Beauchamp
SO! Podcast #79: Behind the Podcast: deconstructing scenes from AFRI0550, African American Health Activism – Nic John Ramos and Laura Garbes
Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis– Airek Beauchamp
Re-orienting Sound Studies’ Aural Fixation: Christine Sun Kim’s “Subjective Loudness”
Editors’ note: As an interdisciplinary field, sound studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB
A stage full of opera performers stands, silent, looking eager and exhilarated, matching their expressions to the word that appears on the iPad in front of them. As the word “excited” dissolves from the iPad screen, the next emotion, “sad” appears and the performers’ expressions shift from enthusiastic to solemn and downcast to visually represent the word on the screen. The “singers” are performing in Christine Sun Kim’s conceptual sound artistic performance entitled, Face Opera.
The singers do not use audible voices for their dramatic interpretation, as they would in a conventional opera, but rather use their faces to convey meaning and emotion keyed to the text that appears on the iPad in front of them. Challenging the traditional notions of dramatic interpretation, as well as the concepts of who is considered a singer and what it means to sing, this art performance is just one way Kim calls into question the nature of sound and our relationship to it.
Audible sound is, of course, essential to sound studies though sound itself is not audist, as it can be experienced in a multitude of ways. The contemporary multi-modal turn in sound studies enables ways to theorize how more bodies can experience sound, including audible sound, motion, vibration, and visuals. All humans are somewhere on a spectrum between enabled and disabled and between hearing and deaf. As we grow older most people move farther toward the disabled and deaf ends of the spectrum. In order to experience sound for a lifetime, it is imperative to explore multi-modal ways of experiencing sound. For instance, the Deaf community rejects the term disabled, yet realizes it is actually normative constructs of hearing, sound, and music that disable Deaf people. But, as Kim demonstrates, Deaf people engage with sound all of the time. In this case, Deaf individuals are not disabled but rather, what I identify as difabled (differently-abled) in their relationship with sound. While this term is not yet used in disability scholarship, it is not completely unique, as there is a Difabled Twitter page dedicated to, “Ameliorating inclusion in technology, business and society.” Rejection of the word disabled inspires me to adopt difabled to challenge the cultural binary of ability and embrace a more multi-modal approach.
Kim’s art explores sound in a variety of modalities to decenter hearing as the only, or even primary, way to experience sound. A conceptual sound artist who was born profoundly deaf, Kim describes her move into the sound artistic landscape: “In the back of my mind, I’ve always felt that sound was your thing, a hearing person’s thing. And sound is so powerful that it could either disempower me and my artwork or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.”
For sound to empower, however, cultural perception has to move beyond the ear – a move that sound studies is uniquely poised to enable. Using Kim’s art as a guide, I investigate potential places for Deaf within sound studies. I ask if there are alternative ways to listen in a field devoted to sound. Bridging sound studies and Deaf studies it is possible to see that sound is not ableist and audist, but sound studies traditionally has suffered from an aural fixation, a fetishization of hearing as the best or only way to experience sound.
Pushing beyond the understanding of hearing as the primary (or only) sound precept, some scholars have begun to recognize the centrality of the body’s senses in sound experience. For instance, in his research on reggae, Julian Henriques coined the term sonic dominance to refer to sound that is not just heard but that “pervades, or even invades the body” (9). This experience renders the sound experience as tactile, felt within the body. Anne Cranny-Francis, who writes on multi-modal literacies, describes the intimate relationship between hearing and sound, believing that “sound literally touches us,” This process of listening is described as an embodied experience that is “intimate” and “visceral.” Steph Ceraso calls this multi-modal listening. By opening up the body to listen in multi-modal ways, full-bodied, multi-sense experiences of sound are possible. Anthropologist Roshanak Kheshti believes that the differentiation of our senses created a division of labor for our senses – a colonizing process that maximizes the use-value and profit of each individual sense. She reminds her audience that “sound is experienced (felt) by the whole body intertwining what is heard by the ears with what is felt on the flesh, tasted on the tongue, and imagined in the psyche” (714), a process she calls touch listening.
Other scholars continue to advocate for a place for the body in sound studies. For instance, according to Nina Sun Eidsheim, in Sensing Sound, sound allows us to posit questions about objectivity and reality (1), as posed in the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Eidsheim challenges the notion of a sound, particularly music, as fixed by exploring multiple ways sound may be sensed within the body. Airek Beauchamp, through his notion of sonic tremblings, detaches sound from the realm of the static by returning to the materiality of the body as a site of dynamic processes and experiences that “engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses.” Understanding the body as a place of engagement rather than censorship, Cara Lynne Cardinale calls for a critical practice of look-listening that reconceptualizes the modalities of the tongue and hands.
As these scholars have identified, privileging audible sound over other senses reinforces normative ideas of communication and presumes that individuals hear, speak, and experience sound in normative ways. These ableist and audist rhetorics are particularly harmful for individuals who are Deaf. Deaf community members actively resist these ableist and audist assumptions to show that sound is not just for hearing. Kim identifies as part of the Deaf community and uses her art to challenge the ableist and audist ideologies of the sound experience. Through exploring one of Christine Sun Kim’s performance pieces, Subjective Loudness, I argue that we can conceptualize sound studies in the absence of auditory sound through the two concepts Kim’s piece were named for, subjectivity and loudness.
In creating Subjective Loudness, Kim asked 200 Tokyo residents to help her create a musical score. Hearing participants were asked to use their bodies to replicate sounds of common 85 dB noises into microphones. The sounds Kim selected included: the swishing of a washing machine, the repetitive rotation of printing press, the chaos of a loud urban street, and the harsh static of a food blender. After the list was complete, Kim has the sounds translated into a musical score, sung by four of Kim’s closest friends. The noises then become music, which Kim lowers below normal human hearing range for a vibratory experience accessible to hearing and non-hearing individuals alike; The result is music that is not heard but rather felt. As vibrations shake the walls, windows, and furniture audience members feel the music.
Kim’s performance expands upon current understandings of the body in sound by incorporating multiple materialities of sound into one experience. Rather than simply looking at an existing sound in a new way, she develops and executes the sound experience for her participants. Kim types the names of common 85 dB sounds, what most hearing people may call “noise” on an iPad – a visual representation of the sound.
By asking participants to use their bodies to replicate these sounds – to change words into noise – Kim moves visual representation moves into the audible domain. This phase is contingent on each participant’s subjective experience with the particular sound, yet it also relies on the materiality of the human body to be able to replicate complex sounds. The audible sounds were then returned to a visual state as they were translated into a musical score. In this phase, noise is silenced as it is placed as musical notes on a page. The score is then sung, audibly, once again shifting visual into audible. Noise becomes music.
Yet even in the absence of hearing the performers sing, observers can see and perhaps feel the performance. Similar to Kim’s Face Opera, this performance is not just for the ear. The music is then silenced by reducing its volume beyond that of normal hearing range. Vibrations surround the participants for a tactile experience of sound. But participants aren’t just feeling the vibrations, they are instruments of vibration as well, exerting energy back into the space that then alters the sound experience for other bodies. The materiality of the body allows for a subjective experience of sound that Kim would not be able to as easily manipulate if she simply asked audience members to feel vibrations from a washing machine or printing press. But Kim doesn’t just tinker with the subjectivity of modality, she also plays with loudness.
In this performance Kim creates a think interweaving of modalities. Part of this interplay involves challenging our understanding of loudness. For instance, participants recreate loud noises, but then the loud noise is reduced to silence as it is translated into a musical score. The volume has been dialed down, as has the intensity as the musical score isolates participates. The sound experience, as the score, is then sung, reconnecting the audience to a shared experience. Floating with the ebb and flow of the sound, participants are surrounded by sound, then removed from it, only to then be surrounded again. Finally, as the sound is reduced beyond hearing range, the vibrations are loud, not in volume but in intensity. The participants are enveloped in a sonorous envelope of sonic experience, one that is felt through and within the body. This performance combats a long-standing belief Kim had about her relationship with sound.
As a child, Kim was taught, “sound wasn’t a part of my life.” She recounted in a TED talk that her experience was like living in a foreign country, “blindly following its rules, behaviors, and norms.” But Kim recognized the similarities between sound and ASL. “In Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound,” Kim stated in the same talk. Equating music with ASL, Kim notes that neither a musical note nor an ASL sign represented on paper can fully capture what a music note or sign are. Kim uses a piano metaphor to make her point better understood to a hearing audience. “English is a linear language, as if one key is being pressed at a time. However, ASL is more like a chord, all ten fingers need to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept in ASL.” If one key were to change, the entire meaning would change. Subjective Loudness attempts to demonstrate this, as Kim moves visual to sound and back again before moving sound to vibration. Each one, individually, cannot capture the fullness of the word or musical note. Taken as a performative whole, however, it becomes easier to conceptualize vibration and movement as sound.
In Subjective Loudness, Kim’s performance has sonic dominance in the absence of hearing. “Sonic dominance,” Henriques writes, “is stuff and guts…[I]t’s felt over the entire surface of the skin. The bass line beats on your chest, vibrating the flesh, playing on the bone, and resonating in the genitals” (58). As Kim’s audience placed hands on walls, reaching out to to feel the music, it is possible to see that Kim’s performance allowed for full-bodied experiences of sound – a process of touch listening. And finally, incorporating Deaf and hearing individuals in her performance, Kim shows that all bodies can utilize multi-modal listening as a way to experience sound. Kim’s performances re-centers alternative ways of listening. Sound can be felt through vibration. Sound can be seen in visual representations such as ASL or visual art.
Through Subjective Loudness, it is possible to investigate subjectivity and loudness of sound experiences. Kim does not only explore sound represented in multi-modal ways, but weaves sound through the modalities, moving the audible to the visual to the tactile and often back again. This sound-play allows audiences to question current conceptions of sound, to explore sounds in multi-modalities, and to use our subjectivities in sharing our experiences of sound with others. Kim’s art performances are interactive by design because the materiality and subjectivity of bodies is what makes her art so powerful and recognizable. Toying with loudness as intensity, Kim challenges her audience to feel intensity in the absence of volume and spark the recognition that not all bodies experience sound in normative ways. Deaf bodies are vitally part of the soundscape, experiencing and producing sound. Kim’s work shows Deaf bodies as listening bodies, and amplifies the fact that Deaf bodies have something to say.
Featured image: Screen capture by Flickr User evan p. cordes, (CC BY 2.0)
Sarah Mayberry Scott is an Instructor of Communication Studies at Arkansas State University. Sarah is also a doctoral student in Communication and Rhetoric at the University of Memphis. Her current research focuses on disability and ableist rhetorics, specifically in d/Deafness. Her dissertation uses the work of Christine Sun Kim and other Deaf artists to explore the rhetoricity of d/Deaf sound performances and examine how those performances may continue to expand and diversify the sound studies and disability studies landscapes.
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Introduction to Sound, Ability, and Emergence Forum –Airek Beauchamp
The Listening Body in Death— Denise Gill
Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table — Kimberly Williams
Technological Interventions, or Between AUMI and Afrocuban Timba –Caleb Lázaro Moreno
“Sensing Voice”*–-Nina Sun Eidsheim