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Botanical Rhythms: A Field Guide to Plant Music

Only overhead the sweet nightingale

Ever sang more sweet as the day might fail,

And snatches of its Elysian chant

Were mixed with the dreams of the Sensitive Plant

Percy Shelley, The Sensitive Plant, 1820

 

ROOT: Sounds from the Invisible Plant

Plants are the most abundant life form visible to us. Despite their ubiquitous presence, most of the times we still fail to notice them. The botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler call it “plant blindness, an extremely prevalent condition characterized by the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s immediate environment. Mathew Hall, author of Plants as Persons, argues that our neglect towards plant life is partly influenced by the drive in Western thought towards separation, exclusion, and hierarchy. Our bias towards animals, or zoochauvinism–in particular toward large mammals with forward facing eyes–has been shown to have negative implications on funding towards plant conservation. Plants are as threatened as mammals according to Kew’s global assessment of the status of plant life known to science. Curriculum reforms to increase plant representation and engaging students in active learning and contact with local flora are some of the suggested measures to counter our plant blindness.

Participatory art including plants might help dissipate plants’ invisibility. Some authors argue that meaningful experiences involving a multiplicity of senses can potentially engage emotional responses and concern towards plants life. In this article, I map out a brief history of the different musical and sound art practices that incorporate plants and discuss the ethics of plant life as a performative participant.

 

 

STEM: Music to grow your plants by 

Flowers grow rhythmically.

Henry Turner Bailey, 1916

“Music for plants” is a small footnote in the history of recorded music. However, it perfectly mirrors many of the misconceptions and mainstream perceptions of plant life. By late 1950s, reports on the relationship between plants and music started to surface in popular culture and making the headlines of newspapers for the next decades: Flute Music ‘charms’ plants into growing bigger, better; Silly-looking plants that listen and really care, Drooping Plants Revived by Soothing East Indian Music. These experiments were later compiled and disseminated by the bestselling book The Secret Lives of Plants (1973) that furthered ideas of sentient plants that feel emotions and respond to human thought (what Cleve Backster called primary perception).

Cleve Backster - Primary Perception

Cleve Backster

The book reinforced the music-plant experiments of Dorothy Retallack, that famously claimed that plants exposed to classical and sitar music thrived in comparison to plants exposed to Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix’s acid rock. The scientific shortcomings of these experiments are well known. Daniel Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows, points out that Retallack’s experiments mainly provide a window into the cultural-political climate of the 1960s through the lens of a religious social conservative who believed that rock music was correlated with antisocial behavior among teenagers.  The alleged beneficial plant response to classical music was in many occasions used as an ideological device against youth culture.

Criticizing Music, Dr Max Rafferty, Effects of Rock Music on Plants

Musicians and record companies seized to entertain this new potted audience. Records to aid plant growth could be found in many florist stores in the US.  Their labels promised happy, healthy and fast growing plants with the help of classical and chamber music standards, electronic tunes, sine waves and spoken word. For instance, Molly Roth’s record Plant Talk (1976) gaudily speaks to several indoor plants (English Ivy, Fern, Philodendron…) while giving advice on plant care.

Molly Roth & Jim Bricker, Plant Talk/Sound Advice, 1976:

 

Dr. George Milstein’s record Music to Grow Plants (1970) uses high pitched tones under a Mantovani-esque orchestration to help improve the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the plants’ leaves. “The music is sugar coating for the vibrations” explains Milstein, “sound vibrations induce the stomata to remain open wider for longer periods, thus plants take in more nourishment and grow faster and sturdier.”

Dr. George Milstein, Music to Grow Plants, 1970:

 

Music to Grow Plants manifested the human perception of plants as passive and isolated recluses of indoor places. Some of these artists’ efforts came from the genuine struggle to grow plants in big metropolis. However, the veiled nature of plants became attached to personal narratives, tastes and social values. Plants were visible insofar as a canvas to anthropomorphic projections.

 

LEAF: Green Materialities and the Electrical Plant

Oats… the witching soul of music.

Kate Greenaway, The Language of Flowers, 1884

 

The sounding materiality of plants was appropriated by avant-garde practices interested in amplifying the noises of everyday life. The sounds produced by acts of physical contact with plants became a new ground for musical composition. Contact microphones attached to plants’ surfaces amplified their inaudible sonic proprieties. Two of John Cage’s percussion compositions Child of Tree (1975) and Branches (1976) call for amplified plant materials like cacti and rattles from a Poinciana tree. Plants provided the quality of chance and indeterminacy as they gradually deteriorate during the performance. The amplified cactus became an icon of indeterminacy music and keeps being plucked by many artists today like Jeph Jerman, So Percussion, Mark Andre, Adrienne Adar or Lindsey French. The Portuguese sound artist João Ricardo creates full soundscapes by conducting an orchestra of over twenty cacti (Cactus Workestra) performed by young students that follow his gestural directions on how to rhythmically pluck the cacti needles.

 

 

Creating music through touch and corporal proximity with plant life revitalizes human-plant relationships generating intimacy and knowledge. John Ryan poses the importance of “reaching out towards plants” to create experiences of embodied appreciation and connectivity. A close connection between body, plants and music can be found in leaf music (folded leaf whistle, gumleaf music) practiced by Australian Aboriginal societies who developed an acute ability to select and differentiate the sonic qualities of plant matter. The scholar Robin Ryan describes how leaf music is an intimate and vital part of Aboriginal societies to reflect upon the nonhuman world, as well as, a vehicle of attachment to local “music trees,” bushes, and plants. The Serbian film Unplugged (2013), directed by Mladen Kovacevic, follows two leaf players from rural eastern Serbia and an instrument builder trying to learn the art of leaf music. The simplicity of the leaf instrument deceives the extent of knowledge and practice necessary to master it.

 

 

Time and intimacy with plant matter are important components of leaf music. Artists like Annea Lockwood (Piano Transplants) and Ross Bolleter (Ruined Pianos) reversed the equation of the effects of music on plant growth and explored the effects of plant growth on musical instruments by abandoning pianos in outdoor fields and gardens. These works disregard human-time and tune in to plant-time. There’s a special acknowledgement of plant life in art works that tap into plants’ otherness.

Annea Lockwood - Piano Garden [1969-70] photo by Chris Ware

Annea Lockwood – Piano Garden [1969-70] photo by Chris Ware

In many music performances the role of the plant remains attached to an object-like position tied to the artist’s agenda. Musical practices using generative systems stemming from plants’ biological information attempt to take a step forward into the inner life of plants. Sensors attached to plants’ leaves detect bioelectrical potential changes originating from environmental variables like light, humidity, temperature and touch. These micro-electrical fluctuations are converted into MIDI signals that trigger notes and controls in synthesizers. The element of interactivity that these systems allow between public and plant via sound highlights in real time plant responses to sensorial stimuli. The Mexican artist Leslie Garcia sonically demonstrates the sensorial qualities of plants in her project Pulsu(m) Plantae (2012-13) and makes her software available for other artists to use. Similarly, the duo Scenocosme  creates interactive gardens where plants act as sensors to human touch generating cascades of sound. Creative chains linking plants, technology, music and touch can also be found in site-specific installations by Mileece and Miya Masaoka.

 

 

Plant-based generative music was pioneered by the British architect and artist John Lifton in the early 70s. Lifton created Green Music, an installation for 6 plants in an environmental chamber connected to an analogue computer and fed to a synthesizer. In 1976, the producers of the film-adaptation of Secret Life of Plants brought John Lifton to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to collaborate with Richard Lowenberg, Tom Zahuanec, and Jim Wiseman. The group developed a several day media-performance with sonic translations of brain waves and muscle electrical potentials of 6 dancers mixed with plant-based generative music. The film features few sequences of this performance. However, we can get a better glimpse at Tom Zahuranec’s plant generative music in an interview by Charles Amirkhanian for a KPFA’s Radio Event. Particularly, we can hear audiences’ thoughts on plant life and how widespread were new age ideas of primary perception in plants.

 

Charles Amirkhanian & audience members react to Tom Zahuranec’s plant music, Radio Event No. 20, KPFA, 1972

 

These early experiments on generative music were a main influence on the artistic collective Data Garden, which has been releasing plant music and creating immersive audio environments controlled by plants since 2011. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Data Garden launched a biofeedback kit, the MIDI Sprout, that allows users to easily derive music from plants’ electrical changes. Joe Patitucci, founder of Data Garden, says that since the campaign they have produced 800 units and have 400 users on their forum experimenting with the technology. In parallel, Patitucci has developed an online stream called Plants.fm that continuously broadcasts music generated by a snake plant and/or a philodendron. Data Garden has also released an app that allows users to plug the MIDI Sprout to the phone and hear their plants triggering the sounds designed by the developers.

 

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, performance with MIDI Sprout, modular synthesizer and voice

 

These methods of generative composition are easing the way for users to creatively relate to plants. However, it’s vital that artists don’t reduce the diversity of plant life into a single aesthetic or into a “music of the spheres” representation. In this respect, the sound ecologist Michael Prime shatters the convention of assigning melodic sounds to plants by creating alien soundscapes generated from the electrical signals of hallucinogenic plants as heard in L-Fields and in One hour as a plant.

Beyond plants’ electrical responses, some artists are using alternative parameters to translate the life of plants into sound. For instance, Christine Ödlund collaborated with Ecological Chemistry Research Group in Stockholm to create an electro-acoustic composition accompanied by a score entitled Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle in which she transposes into tones the chemical signals released by a stinging nettle when attacked by a caterpillar and how the plant communicates with its nearby plant kin (the score can be seen in more detail here). The installation “Oxygen Flute,” created by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer, reveals plant and human respiration through CO2 concertation readings in a chamber filled with bamboo. The fluctuation of CO2 inside the sealed chamber is translated into bamboo flute music fostering in the visitor a heightened perception of his own breath. The sonification of these hidden relationships between plant life and animal life call attention to larger concepts like the greenhouse effect or global warming in a very physical and emotional way. They make graspable what Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects – objects massively distributed in time and space that defy our perception and comprehension.

 

FOREST: Plant Bioacoustics and Acoustic Ecology

Sit by the trees – what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?

Pauline Oliveros, Country Meditations, 1988

 

One could argue that the only sound that is ecologically relevant is the sound of the plant itself. The realm of vibrations occurring on the plants’ surfaces that manifest the plant’s own agency and connectivity to its surroundings. In short, plant bioacoustics aims to study plants’ adaptive strategies that employ the use of sound. A common example is the process of buzz pollination in which plants only release pollen when vibrating at a specific frequency by pollinator bees. Plants can also respond selectively to the mechanical vibrations generated by the chewing of insect herbivores eliciting defensive chemical responses. A study by Monica Gagliano revealed that young roots of corn grow towards the source of continuous tones and respond optimally to frequencies of 200–300 Hz, which is within the frequency range of the clicking sounds the same roots emit themselves. Also, Gagliano and her team have recently shown that the roots of pea seedlings are able to locate water sources by sensing the vibrations generated by water moving. Gagliano has been one of the forefront voices advocating for the need of more research in plant bioacoustics to understand the ecological significance of sound in plants.

 

Slide29

 

So far, it is not completely clear how plants use “sound detection,” and if sounds are used as signal or are merely by-products of their physiology. Nevertheless, is important to recognize them. These sounds have been the focus of some practices that articulate artistic and scientific points of view. Inspired by Gagliano’s studies, Sebastian Frisch created the installation Biophonic Garden that recontextualizes a lab setting where a group of corn seedlings are suspended in a water tank that grow towards a constant sine tone of 220 Hertz. A set of headphones allows one to tune into the roots’ acoustic environment amplified by two hydrophones.

biophonic_garden_bg

Photo of Biophonic Garden, with Authorization by Sebastian Frisch

Zach Poff’s project Pond Station invites us to eavesdrop on the sounds of underwater plants of a small freshwater pond in Upstate New York. During an artistic residency at Wave Farm, Poff built a floating platform that operates from dawn to evening using solar-charged batteries. The Pond Station uses hydrophones to amplify the sounds of underwater life and broadcasts them via online web stream. The underwater soundscape goes through cyclical changes according to seasons and time of day. In the mornings, Poff describes a photosynthetic chorus of bubbling as plants begin to produce oxygen. Recently, an invasion of duckweed covered the surface of the freshwater pond affecting its soundscape. I asked Zach Poff about the sonic consequences of this invasion:

Duckweed taught me a lesson about biophony as an indicator of biodiversity. For an entire year I struggled with rebuilding hydrophones and upgrading electronics, trying to get back the poly-rhythmic diversity that I heard during the first year of listening. Then I realized that the duckweed could reduce oxygen levels enough to cause fish kills, and block sunlight from reaching other aquatic plants.

Pond Station in the Morning by Zach Poff, Reproduced with Authorization

Photo of Pond Station in the Morning by Zach Poff, Reproduced with Authorization

Poff finds a parallel between the lack of density and variety in the underwater soundscape of the pond and Bernie Krause’s recordings made in California’s Lincoln Meadow before and after selective logging occurred:

From a distance the visual field was unchanged but the biophony was basically gone after the logging. The pond duckweed looks like a benign blanket of green, but all that’s left of the sound is the slow bubbling that I attribute to decaying organics on the pond bottom. It’s jarring.

 

FRUIT: Plant Ethics and Speculative Botany

There are many ways to love a vegetable.

M.F.K. Fisher, How to cook a wolf, 1942

The sonification and acoustic amplification of plant life evoke both a sense of connection and the realization of an ontological fracture. The translation and artistic representation of plant otherness into sound or music brings ups vital ethical considerations. Michael Marder, author of Plant-Thinking, argues that techniques applied to plants to derive meaningful information from a human standpoint occlude the meaning of the plants themselves. Once we engage with the electronic menagerie, the plant starts to disappear. Alternative ways of thinking with and of being with plants are called upon by Marder, specifically, artistic practices that vibrate with the self-expressions of vegetal life. In Grafts, the scientist Monica Gagliano states that it is inaccurate and unethical to answer the question “How do plants sound?” by transposing vegetal processes onto musical scales. The concern is the override of plants’ natural voices with familiar harmonic sounds, the same way time-lapse photography rips plants of its own temporally.

The work of the Slovenian bio-artist and researcher Špela Petrič delves into the frontiers of plant otherness and problematizes plant ethics. In 2015, Petrič performed Skotopoiesis, a durational piece in which the artist faced a germinating cress for 19 hours. The artist figure casted a shadow on the cress contributing to the etiolation (blanching, whitening) of the plants. Petrič wrote that the 19-hour period of active inactivity was her way of surrendering to the plant. I asked Špela Petrič’ about her perspective on ethics and performative plants:

I think the reason so many people started asking about the ethics of plant use stems on one hand from an increasing pool of knowledge that suggests plants are very much a complex, sentient beings, and on the other because we find ourselves in a spiraling loop of exploitation of all living beings, which provokes questions like: how did we get here and what can we possibly do to change our cosmology to be conducive of a livable world?

For Špela, plant ethics is not tied to artists’ treatment of plants but rather what kind of story the work tells to the audience. Špela confesses:

This part – the way an artwork is perceived – can be tricky and that is why I write about the trap of interfaces. I’ve struggled with it myself; in my best attempt to forefront the relationship between humans and plants I sometimes had to admit to being overpowered by the technology I used. Technology wants to tell its own narrative – the medium is the message – and we should be aware of that.

As to the risk of creating an anthropomorphic experience with plants, Špela sees an opportunity here:

I don’t think anthropomorphic experiences as a point of entry into the plant world should be a priori avoided, we might even say that anthropomorphism is one of our greatest tools for connecting with other species, but the task for artists is one of editing, of observing and of being mindful to what the artwork is saying.

Artistic practices with plants through music or sound can open the hidden territories of vibrant plant matter and an underground mesh of rhythms and patterns. The act of listening to plant life is an act of acknowledgment, a possibility for emotional identification and empathy rendering plants visible.

Featured image: “Music to Grow Plants By,” compilation by the author

Carlo Patrão is an independent radio artist based in New York City. zeppelinruc.wordpress.com

tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Listening to the City of Light: An interview with Sound Recordist Des Coulam – Carlo Patrão

Sounding Out! Podcast #58: The Meaning of Silence – Marcella Ernest

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day–Owen Marshall

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Becoming Sound: Tubitsinakukuru from Mt. Scott to Standing Rock

In the Numu tekwapuha, the Comanche language:

Haa ma ruawe, haa nu haitsi. Nu nahnia tsa Dustin Tahmahkera.

In this post, I talk about the phrase “becoming sound,” and also gesture to several examples across Indi’n Country to encourage us to listen for aural affirmations and disavowals of indigeneity and encourage active reflection on the roles of sound in becoming and being indigenous, now and in the future. By “becoming sound,” I’m interested in the interdependent relations between emitting sound as the formations of sonic vibrations in the air and becoming sound as a method toward restoring good health through cultural ways of listening and healing.

While the former use of sound gets situated more in sound studies, the latter sense of “sound” is evoked more by the medical humanities, such as when saying someone is “of sound mind,” though we know from the history of perceptions of mental illness that what constitutes a “sound mind” is not resoundingly agreed upon.  For example, the U.S. heard the Paiute Wovoka’s visionary Ghost Dance and singing for peace and “becoming sound” again as “savage” and “insane,” and sent the 7th Cavalry to massacre Lakota children, women, and men in response. The misdiagnosis of “savage” has instilled a puritanical, restrictive worldview of what “being sound” means, and it’s been abused and amplified all the more in the metaphorically schizophrenic split between becoming “Indian, an unsound Indian,” and re-becoming a “sound indigenous human being.”

My thoughts here echo an epistemology of sound and being by the late John Trudell. In Neil Diamond’s 2009 documentary Reel Injun, Trudell theorizes on collisions between schizophrenic-like identities located in an expansive soundscape. He says:

600 years ago, that word ‘Indian,’ that sound was never made in this hemisphere. That sound, that noise was never ever made … ever. And we’re trying to protect that [the Indian] as an identity. … we’re starting not to recognize ourselves as human beings. We’re too busy trying to protect the idea of a Native American or an Indian, but we’re not Indians and we’re not Native Americans. We’re older than both concepts. We’re the people. We’re the human beings.

Following Trudell’s call for becoming the people again, and for resisting what he calls the genocidal “vehicle [that tries to erase] the memory of what it means to be a human being,” my attention, my ear bends toward asking about the roles of sound in human being-ness and toward the roles of listening in that ongoing process of becoming sound human beings, a process cognizant of the “cacophonies of colonialism,” as sounded forth by Jodi Byrd in The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, and a process also grounded in indigenous sonic traditions and modernity.

What I’m sharing is in support of an emerging multimedia research lab, podcast, and book project I call Sounds Indigenous, a title which affords considerable space in sonic clashes between how indigeneity gets heard and unheard, how it is sounded and unsounded. Sounds Indigenous involves listening for sonic sovereignty in indigenous borderlands. For me, it’s particularly located in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the 240,000 square miles of Comanche homelands known as la Comanchería.

As for method, Sounds Indigenous practices tubitsinakukuru, our word for listening carefully.

 

As I recently wrote elsewhere in a special indigenous-centric issue of Biography, “Nakikaru means listen, but to practice tubitsinakukuru is to listen closely and engage with the speakers and sounds, be they familiar or foreign, friendly or fierce, fictive or factual, or sometimes, in the eccentricities of humanity, all of the above.” It goes back to one’s beginning. As Muscogee Creek artist Joy Harjo says in her co-edited collection Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: “We learn the world and test it through interaction and dialogue with each other, beginning as we actively listen through the membrane of the womb wall to the drama of our families’ lives” (19).

In the context of colonialism, this project is about listening, too, through sonic dissonance. From the Latin word for “not agreeing in sound,” dissonance represents the disharmonius, that which lacks in agreement. But more importantly, it’s about using, not disavowing, the dissonance as audible ground from which to reimagine indigenous futures toward becoming sound. In an indigenous sound studies context, it means listening through Byrd’s “cacophonies of colonialism,” through ear-splitting “discordant and competing representations” of Indianness and indigeneity (xxvii). We know that what sounds indigenous often becomes sites of debate and critique, such as when hearing what Phil Deloria calls “the sound of Indian” (183) in Indians in Unexpected Placesbe it the boisterous nonsensical grunts and ugs in cinema, the cadence of the tomahawk chop at sporting events, the clapping hand-to-mouth of cowboys-and-Indians televisual and school playground lore, or early ethnologists’ mis-hearings of indigenous songs across Indian country, all the performative made-up stuff of non-Native imaginaries that all too often makes up the popular “sonic wallpaper” of Indianness (222).

Harley Davidson “Indian” Motorcycles, Parked atop Mt. Scott, Image by Author

At the same time, Sounds Indigenous is also about the soundscapes, the sonic formations, of Comanches and other Natives.   It’s about indigenous auditory responses, which includes not only the vocalized, the heard, but also sampling the “certain quality of being” that Africana Studies scholar Kevin Quashie calls “the sovereignty of quiet” in his study of the same title.  Sounds Indigenous is about those auditory responses and expressive ways of sounding indigenous that reverberate through and against what my Mapuche colleague Luis Carcamo-Huechante calls acoustic colonialism, and what Ronald Radano and Tejumola Olaniyan call the “audible empire” (7): “the discernible qualities of [what] one hears and listens to—that condition imperial structurations.”

With that said, this is a nascent mix and remix of words in an always already failed search of communicating the ineffable: these are words in search of communicating holistically about sonic affect. Sonic affect is about far more than just “sound” or just “listening.” Sonic affect is also not just about the subjectivity of how certain sounds make us feel certain ways, but rather it is what deeply makes soundings possible and brings forth our expressions of and feelings about sound. Affect is not just emotion; affect is what allows us the capabilities to feel emotion.

The road to Mt. Scott, Image by author

Yet even with the ineffability of affect, “every word,” Trudell tells us, “every word has power” as we turn each word “into sound … into the world of vibration, the vibratory world, the vibration of sound. It’s like throwing a pebble,” he says, “into the pond. Something happens.” The “something” from words and other sounds may not be fully communicable in sonic expressions, but I’d like to think we know of the something when we hear it and feel it as human beings, even if it’s a recognition of seemingly unknowable mystery, especially in moments of what media scholar Dominic Pettman calls “sonic intimacy,” a process of “turning inward…to more private and personal experiences and relationships” in Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (or, How To Listen to the World)(79), such as seen and heard in this personal video I took with my phone during a sunset in early 2014 while sitting with my son Ira atop Mt. Scott, the tallest peak in the Wichita Mountains.

For me, Mt. Scott has long been one of the most remarkable sites in the world, a sacred site carrying a long history with Comanches but that for many may be just another tourist destination.

As a Comanche born in Lawton, Oklahoma, who grew up mostly just south of there in the Wichita Falls, Texas, area, I have crossed the Pia Pasiwuhunu, the Red River, innumerable times and visited nearby Mt. Scott, climbing its boulders with friends or driving on the roadway  that snakes around it to the top.Once at the top, I, like my g-g-g-grandfather Quanah Parker, the most famous of all Comanches, have sat there: observing, listening, exploring, and praying. But as you may have heard from other folks’ voices in the background of the video with my son, it can be difficult these days to “get away” on Mt. Scott. You may hear tourists laughing, loud talking on cell phones, rocks being thrown, and the revving of Harley Davidsons or, better yet, Indian motorcycles  in the now-spacious parking lot at the top.

The loudest noise, though, comes from nearby Fort Sill. Named after Joshua Sill who died in 1862 in the Civil War, it began in 1869 as an outpost against Comanches, Kiowas, and other Native Peoples. Now a military base that has been known to sometimes still go against us, Fort Sill is known for its Field Artillery School and, for those in the Wichita Mountains and Lawton where the base is located, known for its sonic booms of artillery testing, guns, bombs, missiles, and tanks as seen here in an old Fort Sill training film.

Over the decades, it’s become what some might consider elements of a naturalized and normalized soundscape. As long as I can remember, the sounds of artillery have been there, somewhere, in experiences of being in the Wichita Mountains; but not everyone interprets those sounds similarly. The author of the 2001  LA Times article “Military Booms Are Boon to Okla. Base’s Neighbors” claims you “would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t welcome the disruption.” They quote local residents saying things like “We do live with the boom-boom-boom of artillery fire 24 hours a day, but it’s very interesting about living here, you just don’t hear it anymore.” One former Fort Sill general-turned local banker says, “That’s the price you pay when you live in a community like this. To us, it is oddly comforting. It’s the sound of a healthy economy and a viable place to live.” Another Ft. Sill general adds, “At times the noise is bothersome. But it’s proof positive that we are still conducting our mission here. And the people of Lawton derive comfort from that.” A former mayor of Lawton says, “When I hear those guns out there popping, that’s the sound of freedom ringing in my ears …That’s the freedom bells ringing. Those are the guns that are going to be fired if we have to defend the United States of America.” Such rhetoric, spoken in the 21st-century, sounds rather reminiscent of Fort Sill’s origins in defense against the indigenous.

Still, it’s complicated, to be sure, made even more so by the fact that I come from a strong military family–of all Comanche families, Tahmahkeras rank second in having the most veterans and I’m proud of that, I’m proud of my relatives. Still, there’s something about the blasts hovering through the air and over our homelands. There’s a reminder, of imagined sonic memories of weaponry used against our Comanche ancestors, like “the world’s first repeating pistol, the” “‘Walker Colt’ .44 caliber revolver” that the Comanche Paul Chaat Smith says was “designed for one purpose: to kill Comanches.” As a Comanche elder recently told me in response to Fort Sill’s artillery explosions, “it’s not easily something you can overcome because it brings back the memories of over 150 years ago,” of what happened to the people.

In response to the militarized sonic booms, I’m intrigued by an idea sounded forth by four-time Comanche Nation chairman Wallace Coffey. In the early 1990s, Coffey wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney at a time when the U.S. Government was shutting down Army bases. In a 2010 interview with Coffey recalls telling Cheney “to close Ft. Sill down and give it back to the Comanches, and we will heal it. Instead of bombing this land, we will heal it.” As he told me in a conversation in the Wichita Mountains in June 2017, “We may not be the titleholders [over all our homelands now], but we are still the caretakers.”

It brings to mind an old story from the late 1860s, that illustrates how one culturally-informed Comanche back then listened to militarized sounds. As Chickasaw citizen and retired Ft. Sill Museum director Towana Spivey recounted in his email to me on June 10, 2017: when generals Sheridan, Grierson, and Custer went “to the Medicine Bluffs area,” long held as a sacred site but also is where Ft. Sill is now located, “the soldiers gathered to explore the imposing bluffs along the creek” and “noticed the echo effects when shouting or discharging their weapons in the basin in front of the steep bluffs.

They continued to fire their weapons to create a corresponding echo.” In response, Asa-Toyet, or Gray Leggings, a Comanche scout who accompanied them, “was,” Spivey says, “particularly horrified with their antics in this sacred place.” To Asa-Toyet’s hearing and sensibility, those “antics” may suggest what I’d call sonic savagery on the part of the soldiers. They wanted him to climb to the crest with them, but he told the soldiers he was not sick, thus “reflecting the traditional [Comanche] belief that there was no reason to access the crest unless you were suffering from some malady.”

Medicine Bluffs is sacred for many Comanches, such as our current tribal administrator Jimmy Arterberry who says, “Medicine Bluffs is the spiritual center of my religious beliefs and heart of the current Comanche Nation.” You can imagine, then, the opposition to when the U.S. Army, in 2007, sought to build a $7.3 million warehouse for artillery training. When they proposed building it “just south of Medicine Bluffs,” in which certain views would be obstructed and Comanche ceremony disrupted, word eventually got to Towana Spivey who curiously had been left out of communications. As detailed in Oklahoma Today, “The Guardian,” Spivey, a cultural intermediary and longtime educator to Ft Sill leadership about practically anything indigenous, intervened immediately. He talked with Comanches who were obviously against the proposed warehouse. He also tried to talk with certain army officials; but for that, he received a loudly written order that read, and I quote, “Do Not Talk to the Indians,” a blatant attempt to try to silence the indigenous who gets reduced to that category of Indian that Trudell critiques. The Comanche Nation soon sued the Army, and the Comanches won, thanks in part to Spivey, who had been “subpoenaed to testify for the plaintiff.” U.S. District Judge Tim DeGiusti ruled that the U.S. Army failed to consider alternate locations and that “post officials” had “turned a deaf ear to warnings” from Spivey. Those warnings, I’d add, were indigenous-centered by a Chickasaw and U.S. ally of the Comanches who recognizes us as Trudell calls forth: as human beings.

In the audible imaginary of sonic duels and dissonance between the Indian and the people/human beings, the list grows elsewhere in Indi’n Country. Consider  when Greg Grey Cloud was arrested in 2014 for singing an honor song (not chanting, as some media outlets reported), but an honor song “to honor,” he says, “the conviction shown by the senators” “who voted against the Keystone XL pipeline, Grey Cloud sings even as self-identifying Cherokee, Senator Elizabeth Warren, calls for order.

Or consider, too, when just last year, indigenous honor song singers and their handdrums at Standing Rock were met by LRADs, Long Range Acoustic Devices, among other weapons.

The LRAD Corporation boldly claims its device “is not a weapon,” with the “not” in bold typeface, underlined, and italicized as if that makes it true. They prefer the description “highly-intelligible long-range communication device.”  Following echoes of Indian hating from the so-called “Indian wars” of history, reports came in of police confiscating handdrums, suggestive of fearing the sounds and songs they do not recognize.  Laguna Pueblo journalist Jenni Monet quoted Arvol Looking Horse who said police “took … [ceremonial pipes]” and “called our prayer sticks weapons.” Ponca activist and actress Casey Camp-Horinek was there, too, singing while surrounded by other elders, a circle of human beings. She later reflected that “I’ve never felt so centered and grounded and protected as I did at that particular moment.”

Image by Flickr User Dark Sevier, Standing Rock, 4 December 2016, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Even the noise cannon,” she adds, “didn’t effect me.”

In closing, the sonic dissonance reverberates between sites such as indigenous honor songs in support of tribal and planetary well-being, and the militarized sonic responses—from artillery testing near Mount Scott in Comanche country to sound cannons and the confiscation of sacred drums in Standing Rock—that attempt to silence indigenous soundways. But no one can silence us, including, for example, the Kiowa Zotigh singers here and their honor song for Standing Rock. No one can fully silence us from sounding forth, in efforts toward becoming not unsound Indians but becoming sound human beings.

And by the way, the next time that Ira and I travel to the top of Mt. Scott, we will listen again … we may hear artillery explosions and other sonic reminders of colonialism, but what we’ll also hear are ourselves, breathing, sounding, and becoming Comanche, becoming Numunuu, as we call to the mountain in taa Numu tekwapuha, in our Comanche language. Remember, Mt. Scott is the colonizer’s name. . .but we also have our own names for it, names that historically sustained us as being sound human beings speaking the Numu tekwaphua, and names that can continue to help us become sound now and in the future. Udah, nu haitsi. Thank you.

Featured Image: Greg Grey Cloud escorted from the Senate gallery, image from the Indoan Country Media Network

Dustin Tahmahkera, an enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, is a professor of North American indigeneities, critical media, and cultural sound studies in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In his first book Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), Tahmahkera foregrounds representations of the indigenous, including Native actors, producers, and comedic subjects, in U.S., First Nations, and Canadian television from the 1930s-2010s within the contexts of federal policy and social activism. Current projects include “The Comanche Empire Strikes Back: Cinematic Comanches in The Lone Ranger” (under contract with the University of Nebraska Press’ “Indigenous Films” series) and “Sounds Indigenous: Listening for Sonic Sovereignty in Indian Country.” Tahmahkera’s articles have appeared in American Quarterly, American Indian Quarterly, and anthologies. At UT, he also serves on the Advisory Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies program.

 


tape reelREWIND!
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Sounding Out! Podcast #40: Linguicide, Indigenous Community and the Search for Lost Sounds–Marcella Ernst

The “Tribal Drum” of Radio: Gathering Together the Archive of American Indian Radio–Josh Garrett Davis

Sonic Connections: Listening for Indigenous Landscapes in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles–Laura Sachiko Fugikawa

 

 

“People’s lives are at stake”: A conversation about Law, Listening, and Sound between James Parker and Lawrence English

Lawrence English is composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of perception, through live performance and installation, to create works that ponder subtle transformations of space and ask audiences to become aware of that which exists at the edge of perception.

James Parker is a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School, where he is also Director of the research program ‘Law, Sound and the International’ at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities. James’ research addresses the many relations between law, sound and listening, with a particular focus at the moment on sound’s weaponisation. His monograph Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi (OUP 2015) explores the trial of Simon Bikindi, who was accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of inciting genocide with his songs (30% discount available with the code ALAUTHC4). James is also a music critic and radio broadcaster. He will be co-curating an exhibition and parallel public program on Eavesdropping at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne between July and October 2018.


Lawrence English: James, thanks for taking the time to correspond with me. I was interested in having this conversation with you as we’re both interested in sound, but perhaps approaching its potential applications and implications in somewhat different ways. And yet we have a good deal of potential cross over in our sonic interests too. Particularly in the way that meaning is sought and extracted from our engagements with sound. How that meaning is constructed and what is extracted and amplified from those possible, meaningful readings of sound in time and place. I read with great interest your work on acoustic jurisprudence, specifically how you almost build a case for an ontological position that’s relational between sound and the law. I wondered if you could perhaps start with a summary of this framework you’re pushing towards? I am interested to know how it is you have approached this potentiality in the meaning of sound and the challenges that lie in working around an area that is still so diffuse, at least in a legal setting.

James Parker:   Let me begin by saying a sincere thank you for the invitation. As a long-time fan of your work, it’s a pleasure. It’s also symptomatic in a way, because – so far at least – the art world has been much more interested in my research than the legal academy. When I’m in a law faculty and I say that my work is about law’s relationship(s) with sound, people are mostly surprised, sometimes they’re interested, but they rarely care very much. I don’t mean this as a slight. It’s just that their first instinct is always that I’m doing something esoteric: that my work doesn’t really ‘apply’ to them as someone interested in refugee law, contract, torts, evidence, genocide, or whatever the case may be. As you point out though, that’s not the way I see it at all. One of the things I’ve tried to show in my work is just how deeply law, sound and listening are bound up with each other. This is true in all sorts of different ways, whether or not the relationship is properly ‘ontological’.

Image by Flickr User Frank Hebbert, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At the most obvious level, the soundscape (both our sonic environment and how we relate to it) is always also a lawscape. Our smartphones, loudspeakers, radios and headsets are all proprietary, as is the music we listen to on them and the audio-formats on which that music is encoded. Law regulates and fails to regulate the volume and acoustic character of our streets, skies, workplaces, bedrooms and battlefields. Courts and legislatures claim to govern the kinds of vocalizations we make – what we can say or sing, where and when – and who gets to listen. As yet another music venue, airport, housing development or logging venture receives approval, new sounds enter the world, others leave it and things are subtly reconstituted as a result.

What’s striking when you look at the legal scholarship, however, is that how sound is conceived for such purposes gets very little attention. There are exceptions: in the fields of copyright and anti-noise regulation particularly. But for the most part, legal thought and practice is content to work with ‘common sense’ assumptions which would be immediately discredited by anyone who spends their time thinking hard about what sound is and does. So as legal academics, legislators, judges, and so on, we need to be much better at attending to law’s ‘sonic imagination’. When an asylum seeker is denied entry to the UK because of the way he pronounces the Arabic word for ‘tomato’ (which actually happened…the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has done some fantastic work on this), what set of relations between voice, accent and citizenship is at stake? When a person is accused of inciting genocide with their songs (in this instance a Rwandan musician called Simon Bikindi), what theory or theories of music manifest themselves in the decision-making body’s discourse and in the application of its doctrine? These are really important questions, it seems to me. To put it bluntly: people’s lives are at stake.

microphone where attorneys present arguments at the Iowa Court of Appeals, Image by Flickr User Phil Roeder,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another way of thinking about the law-sound relation would be to think about the role played by sound in legal practice: in courtrooms, legislatures etc. For a singer to be tried for genocide, for instance, his songs must be heard. Audio and audio- video recordings must be entered as evidence and played aloud to the court; a witness or two may sing. How? When? Why? The judicial soundscape is surprisingly diverse, it turns out. Gavels knock (at least in some jurisdictions), oaths are sworn, judgment is pronounced; and all of this increasingly into microphones, through headsets, and transmitted via audio-video link to prisons and elsewhere. This stuff matters. It warrants thinking about.

Outside the courtroom, sound is often the medium of law’s articulation: what materialises it, gives it reality, shape, force and effect. Think of the police car’s siren, for instance, or a device like the LRAD, which I know you’re also interested in. Or in non-secular jurisdictions, we could think equally of the church bells in Christianity, the call to prayer in Islam or the songlines of Aboriginal Australia. The idea that law today is an overwhelmingly textual and visual enterprise is pretty commonplace. But it’s an overstatement. Sound remains a key feature of law’s conduct, transmission and embodiment.

“Area Man Cheers for LRAD Arrival,” Pittsburgh G-20 summit protests, 2009, Image by Flickr User Jeeves,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And to bring me back to where I started, I feel like artists and musicians are generally better tuned in to this than us lawyers.

English: Given the fact that the voice, and I suppose I mean both literally and metaphorically, reigns so heavily in the development and execution of the law it’s surprising that the discourses around sound aren’t a little more engaged. That being said, it’s not that surprising really, as I’d argue that until recently the broader conversations around sound and listening have been rather sparse. It’s only really in the past three decades have we started to see a swell of critical writings around these topics. The past decade particularly has produced a wealth of thought that addresses sound.

Early Dictophone, Museum of Communication, Image by Flickr User Andy Dean,  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I suppose though that really this situation you describe in the law is tied back into the questions that surround the recognition of sound and the complexities of audition more generally. I can’t help but feel that sound has suffered historically from a lack of theoretical investigation. Partly this is due to the late development of tools that provided the opportunity for sound to linger beyond its moment of utterance. That recognition of the subjectivity of audition, revealed in those first recordings of the phonograph must have been a powerful moment. In that second, suddenly, it was apparent that how we listen, and what it is we extract from a moment to moment encounter with sound is entirely rooted in our agency and intent as a listener. The phonograph’s capturing of audio, by contrast, is without this socio-cultural agency. It’s a receptacle that’s technologically bound in the absolute.

I wonder if part of the anxiety, if that’s the word that could be used, around the way that sound is framed in a legal sense is down to its impermanence. That until quite recently we had to accept the experience of sound, as entirely tethered to that momentary encounter. I sense that the law is slow to adapt to new forms and structures. Where do you perceive the emergence of sound as a concern for law? At what point did the law, start to listen?

Parker: Wow, there’s so much in this question. In relation to your point about voice, of course lawyers do ‘get it’ on some level. If you speak to a practitioner, they’re sure to have an anecdote or two about the sonorous courtroom and the (dark) arts of legal eloquence. You may even get an academic to recognise that a theory of voice is somehow implicit in contemporary languages of democracy, citizenship and participatory politics: this familiar idea that (each of us a little sovereign) together we manifest the collective ‘voice’ of the people. But you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone in the legal academy actually studying any of this (outside the legal academy, I can thoroughly recommend Mladen Dolar’s incredible A Voice and Nothing More, which is excellent – if brief – on the voice’s legal and political dimensions). One explanation, as you say, might be that it’s only relatively recently that a discourse has begun to emerge around sound across the academy: in which case law’s deafness would be symptomatic of a more general inattention to sound and listening. That’s part of the story, I think. But it’s also true that the contemporary legal academy has developed such an obsession with doctrine and the promise of law reform that really any inquiry into law’s material or metaphysical aspects is considered out of the ordinary. In this sense, voice is just one area of neglect amongst many.

As for your points about audio-recording, it’s certainly true that access to recordings makes research on sound easier in some respects. There’s no way I could have written my book on the trial of Simon Bikindi, for instance, without access to the audio-archive of all the hearings. Having said that, I’m pretty suspicious of this idea that the phonograph, or for that matter any recording/reproductive technology could be ‘without agency’ as you put it. It strikes me that the agency of the machine/medium is precisely one of the things we should be attending to.

English: I may have been a little flippant. I agree there’s nothing pure about any technology and we should be suspicious of any claims towards that. It seems daily we’re reminded that our technologies and their relationships with each other pose a certain threat, whether that be privacy through covert recording or potential profiling as suggested by the development of behavioral recognition software with CCTV cameras.

Parker: Not just that. CCTV cameras are being kitted out with listening devices now too. There was a minor controversy about their legality and politics earlier this year in Brisbane in fact.

“Then They Put That Up There”–Shotspotter surveillance mic on top of the Dolores Mission, Image by Flickr User Ariel Dovas, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

English:  Thinking about sound technologies, at the most basic level, the pattern of the microphone, cardioid, omni and the like, determines a kind of possibility for the articulation of voice, and its surrounds. I think the microphone conveys a very strong political position in that its design lends itself so strongly to the power of singular voice. That has manifest itself in everything from media conferences and our political institutions, through to the inane power plays of ‘lead singers’ in 1980s hard rock. The microphone encourages, both in its physical and acoustic design, a certain singular focus. It’s this singularity that some artists, say those working with field recording, are working against. This has been the case in some of the field recordings I have undertaken over the years. It has been a struggle to address my audition and contrast it with that of the microphone. How is it these two rather distinct fields of audition might be brought into relief? I imagine these implications extend into the courtroom.

Parker: Absolutely. Microphones have been installed in courtrooms for quite a while now, though not necessarily (or at least not exclusively) for the purposes of amplification. Most courts are relatively small, so when mics do appear it’s typically for archival purposes, and especially to assist in the production of trial transcripts. This job used to be done by stenographers, of course, but increasingly it’s automated.

Stenographer, Image by Flickr User Mike Gifford, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

So no, in court, microphones don’t tend to be so solipsistic. In fact, in some instances they can help facilitate really interesting collective speaking and listening practices. At institutions like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or for the Former Yugoslavia, for instance, trials are conducted in multiple languages at once, thanks to what’s called ‘simultaneous interpretation’. Perhaps you’re familiar with how this works from the occasional snippets you see of big multi-national conferences on the news, but the technique was first developed at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII.

What happens is that when someone speaks into a microphone – whether it’s a witness, a lawyer or a judge – what they’re saying gets relayed to an interpreter watching and listening on from a soundproof booth. After a second or two’s delay, the interpreter starts translating what they’re saying into the target language. And then everyone else in the courtroom just chooses what language they want to listen to on the receiver connected to their headset. Nuremberg operated in four languages, the ICTR in three. And of course, this system massively affects the nature of courtroom eloquence. Because of the lag between the original and interpreted speech, proceedings move painfully slowly.

Council of Human Rights of the United Nations investigates possible violations committed during the Israeli offensive in the band Gaza,  27 December to 18 January 2008. Image courtesy of the United Nations Geneva via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Courtroom speech develops this odd rhythm whereby everyone is constantly pausing mid-sentence and waiting for the interpretation to come through. And the intonation of interpreted speech is obviously totally different from the original too. Not only is a certain amount of expression or emotion necessarily lost along the way, the interpreter will have an accent, they’ll have to interpret speech from both genders, and then – because the interpreter is performing their translation on the fly (this is extraordinarily difficult to do by the way… it takes years of training) – inevitably they end up placing emphasis on odd words, which can make what they say really difficult to follow. As a listener, you have to concentrate extremely hard: learn to listen past the pauses, force yourself to make sense of the stumbling cadence, strange emphasis and lack of emotion.

On one level, this is a shame of course: there’s clearly a ‘loss’ here compared with a trial operating in a single language. But if it weren’t for simultaneous interpretation, these Tribunals couldn’t function at all. You could say the same about the UN as a whole actually.

English: I agree. Though for what it’s worth it does seem as though we’re on a pathway to taking the political and legal dimensions of sound more seriously. Your research is early proof of that, as are cases such as Karen Piper’s suit against the city of Pittsburgh in relation to police use of an LRAD. As far as the LRAD is concerned, along with other emerging technologies like the Hypershield and the Mosquito, it’s as though sound’s capacity for physical violence, and the way this is being harnessed by police and military around the world somehow brings these questions more readily into focus.

Parker: I think that’s right. There’s definitely been a surge of interest in sound’s ‘weaponisation’ recently. In terms of law suits, in addition to the case brought by Karen Piper against the City of Pittsburgh, LRAD use has been litigated in both New York and Toronto, and there was a successful action a couple of years back in relation to a Mosquito installed in a mall in Brisbane.

On the more scholarly end of things, Steve Goodman’s work on ‘sonic warfare’ has quickly become canonical, of course. But I’d also really recommend J. Martin Daughtry’s new book on the role of sound and listening in the most recent Iraq war. Whereas Goodman focuses on the more physiological end of things – sound’s capacity both to cause physical harm (deafness, hearing loss, miscarriages etc) and to produce more subtle autonomic or affective responses (fear, desire and so on) – Daughtry is also concerned with questions of psychology and the ways in which our experience even of weaponised sound is necessarily mediated by our histories as listeners. For Daughtry, the problem of acoustic violence always entails a spectrum between listening and raw exposure.

These scholarly interventions are really important, I think (even though neither Goodman nor Daughtry are interested in drawing out the legal dimensions of their work). Because although it’s true that sound’s capacity to wound provides a certain urgency to the debate around the political and legal dimensions of the contemporary soundscape, it’s important not to allow this to become the only framework for the discussion. And that certainly seems to have happened with the LRAD.

Of course, the LRAD’s capacity to do irreparable physiological harm matters. Karen Piper now has permanent hearing loss, and I’m sure she’s not the only one. But that shouldn’t be where the conversation around this and other similar devices begins and ends. The police and the military have always been able to hurt people. It’s the LRAD’s capacity to coerce and manage the location and movements of bodies by means of sheer acoustic force – and specifically, by exploiting the peculiar sensitivity of the human ear to mid-to-high pitch frequencies at loud volumes – that’s new. To me, the LRAD is at its most politically troubling precisely to the extent that it falls just short of causing injury. Whether or not lasting injury results, those in its way will have been subjected to the ‘sonic dominance’ of the state.

So we should be extremely wary of the discourse of ‘non-lethality’ that is being mobilised by to justify these kinds of technologies: to convince us that they are somehow more humane than the alternatives: the lesser of two evils, more palatable than bullets and batons. The LRAD renders everyone before it mute biology. It erases subjectivity to work directly on the vulnerable ear. And that strikes me as something worthy of our political and legal attention.

English: I couldn’t agree more. These conversations need to push further outward into the blurry unknown edges if we’re to realise any significant development in how the nature of sound is theorised and analysed moving forward into the 21st century. Recently I have been researching the shifting role of the siren, from civil defence to civil assault. I’ve been documenting the civil defence sirens in Los Angeles county and using them as a starting point from which to trace this shift towards a weaponisation of sound. The jolt out of the cold war into the more spectre-like conflicts of this century has been like a rupture and the siren is one of a number of sonic devices that I feel speak to this redirection of how sound’s potential is considered and applied in the everyday.

Featured Image: San Francisco 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Jury Box, Image by Flickr User Thomas Hawk, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Sounding Out! Podcast #60: Standing Rock, Protest, Sound and Power (Part 1)–Marcella Ernest

The Noises of Finance–Nick Knouf

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day–Owen Marshall

Beyond the Grandiose and the Seductive: Marie Thompson on Noise

 

 

Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

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My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

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“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

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Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

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Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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