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What Do We Hear in Depp v. Heard?

As you probably know—whether you want to or not—the jury reached a verdict earlier this summer in the trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. The trial, in the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia, involved defamation and counter-defamation claims by the two actors. Heard published a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post in which she claimed to be “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp sued her for defamation, she counter-sued, and a seven-week spectacle of celebrity, misogyny, and power followed, in which Depp substantially prevailed.

What does a close listening to Depp v. Heard tell us about this particular trial, as well as about sex and power in the courtroom more generally? 

Depp v. Heard did not just randomly become a media circus. As Joanne Sweeny noted in Slate, the judge made two procedural rulings that led to the ensuing frenzy—and greatly tipped the scales toward the plaintiff. Firstly, the judge allowed cameras in the courtroom to broadcast the proceedings. The Code of Virginia leaves this decision largely up to the court’s discretion, but also stipulates that coverage of “proceedings concerning sexual offenses” is prohibited. Despite the content and high-profile nature of this case, Judge Penney Azcarate decided to proceed with the broadcast. 

Untitled Image by Flickr user SethTippie

Azcarate’s decision is strikingly at odds with the court’s emphasis on silence and decorum. Court order CL-2019-2911 stated, for example, that “Quiet and order shall be maintained at all times. Audible comments of any kind during the court proceedings … will not be tolerated.” In fact, Azcarate interrupted proceedings during trial to tell courtroom spectators to keep their mouths shut. During trial, extraneous noise is heard not just as uncivil but as a threat to impartiality and fairness. However, according to the judge’s logic, this threat is only perceived  within the courtroom. 

This brings us to the second procedural ruling of consequence here. Despite the frenzy enveloping the case, Azcarate decided not to sequester the jury. Jury sequestration involves  the members of the jury being isolated  from public and press during a trial, in order to avoid accidental or deliberate exposure to outside influence or information. Video from the courtroom flooded the internet and, as commentators have argued, likely and unduly influenced the jury, who were not isolated and prevented from accessing TV or social media. As Depp’s legions of supporters raged online, social media effectively became part of his legal team. This  work was done in great part through sound. 

Social media online commentary forensically dissected Heard’s oral testimony, noting changes in her breathing patterns or her speech cadence. Often they would hone in on the fact that she “exhale[d] erratically,” or “can talk so fast,” as seen in this Entertainment Tonight compilation:

The online jury adjudicated on all these vocal elements as proof that she was lying. One internet article described her in audiotape evidence as “cackle[ing] like a witch” and alternating between “laugh[ing] hysterically” and using a “baby voice.” Heard’s detractors took her voice as proof that she was emotionless, robotic, calculated, too well-rehearsed—but also that she was chaotic, nervous, crazy. 

In contrast, commentators described Depp’s voice as “calm,” “calming,” and “soothing,” with Tik Tok users hash-tagging ASMR to audio of him. One fan even posted a ninety-minute ASMR video of his testimony. Multiple Twitter users claimed that “you can hear the pain” in his voice, from an audiotape admitted during trial. At other times, he is applauded for “giggling” and laughing during the trial, with fans hearing it as evidence of his authenticity and “kind soul.” One YouTube commentator, Grandma WHOa, writes that they wish he would record an audiobook so they could “listen to his calming, sexy soothing man voice.” 

So far, so predictable. These are well-established, recognizable patterns about how we hear men’s vs women’s voices in public life—e.g. critiques of Hilary Clinton’s shrill, whiny voice. But listening in to the trial also reveals that this isn’t just a case of online fan culture on overdrive. Instead, it shows how broader social dynamics around gender and power don’t just create outside noise, but are built into formal legal practice within the courtroom.

Much of the conflict here follows a common pattern in defamation cases involving sexual violence claims, with questions around who gets to be a victim (see in my forthcoming piece in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory titled “The Tone of Justice: Voicing the Perpetrator-as-Victim in Sexual Assault Cases”). Depp claimed to have suffered through the defamatory statement and through a longer history of abuse by Heard. His fans framed him as a hero and a victim, using the  social media hashtag #HeardIsAnAbuser. On the other hand, they refused to believe Heard’s claims of having suffered abuse. This determination was based at least in part on Heard’s vocal performance and courtroom testimony, with detractors hearing duplicity in her exhalations, her rapid pace, the occasional firmness and confidence of her tone. As one Depp supporter commented on a video of Heard’s testimony,  “There’s no way a victim sounds like this.” 

Yet in a key strategic move, Depp’s lawyers chose to make Heard sound precisely as sexual assault victims often do during trial. Seeking to dismantle her credibility, they looked to the toolkit of how to deal with a victim in court, mobilizing a well-worn set of legal techniques used to interrogate survivors of sexual violence. In one cross-examination, for example, the plaintiff’s counsel declares that Heard’s “lies have been exposed to the world multiple times.” This claim is then manifested through a series of vocal disciplinary tactics to undermine Heard’s testimony and depict her as a false witness.

For instance, the lawyer, Camille Vasquez, repeatedly employs a common interrogation technique of speaking over and cutting off Heard as she is replying to a question. As legal scholars and sociologists have shown, such techniques are often used in sexual assault cases to intimidate and shape perceptions of the complainant. In a pioneering study on courtroom talk during rape trials, Gregory Matoesian, in Reproducing rape: Domination through talk in the courtroom (1993) describes how lawyers reproduce patriarchal relations of dominance and subordination by “usurping” the witness’ ability to respond (186). As he notes, questions—wielded like weapons of attack by skillful lawyers—are more powerful than answers. 

Vocal technique and dynamics are key here. In Vasquez’s cross-examinations, she repeatedly raises her voice to interrupt Heard, disciplining her before the jury and spectators. She laughs at her testimony and infantilizes Heard, at times speaking to her in calm tones before quickly shifting to a harsher timbre. At one point, Vasquez snaps her notes shut and walks back to her seat while Heard is still answering her question. Heard is forced into abrupt silence. Unable to respond to the question she was asked, she audibly loses control of the narrative being spun. Vasquez also frequently speaks over her and directly to the judge, objecting that Heard is being non-responsive. The lawyer performs for the judge and jury her refusal to listen to Heard. 

At other moments, Vasquez’s voice and affect telegraph exasperation, as she audibly sighs while Heard attempts to answer a question. As Heard and Vasquez go back-and-forth over a line of questioning, Vasquez’s voice bristles with irritation as she speaks in clipped tones, with sharp inflection at the end of each line: “Yes?” “Right?” “Yes or no?” These interjections add an aural layer of interpretation to Heard’s testimony in real-time, guiding the jury to hear the witness as evasive and therefore unreliable. Vasquez’s expressions are all part of a careful vocal strategy, implicitly saying to the jury, “Can you believe this woman?” 

Screenshot from NBC Today video, “Amber Heard Breaks Silence: I Don’t Blame The Jury”

Of course, the answer is no. Jessica Winter, writing in The New Yorker, points out that Heard lost in part because of her “tearless crying,” the fact that she appeared insincere. Winter acknowledges that successful testimony is about “affect and presentation”, a reality that is no secret. In fact, jury instructions in Depp v. Heard clearly state that determinations of witness credibility are based in part on witnesses’ “appearance and manner.” Jurors must use their “common sense” to “determine which witnesses are more believable.” 

But how is “common sense” established? Listening closely to this trial reminds us that such understandings are constructed and regulated through sound as well as through determinants of “appearance and manner,” both in and out of the courtroom. Vasquez’s performance, Heard’s subordinated testimony, and the commentary of millions of avid consumers underline that Heard and Depp sound to many people exactly as common sense and conventional norms would dictate. 

A woman claiming abuse and assault at the hands of a more powerful man is always subject to patriarchal ways of listening, even if she is rich, famous, straight, and white. These ways of listening are contradictory. Research shows that “masculine” voices are heard as more authoritative and dominant, while women are often heard as weak, uncertain, lacking confidence. The public ear hears other racialized and gendered voices through similar power inequities, including queer, nonbinary, and LGBT voices or voices of people of color. In the context of sexual assault adjudication, however, Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla show in their Law & Society Review article “That’s How She Talks”: Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault Trial” “that a confident voice and calm performance can work against a victim-witness in court, by suggesting that she is not passive or meek enough to be a ‘real’ victim.” On the other hand, they note that a victim-witness who cries on the stand may give the impression of performing or acting. Lawyers audibly manipulate these perceptions, as the examples here show, and men (particularly heteronormative, white men in positions of power) reap huge benefits from them.  

Many observers of Depp v. Heard have noted the toxic social media sludge around the case, as well as the danger that the verdict poses to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. But listening closely to the proceedings shows us that these outcomes aren’t random and aren’t just part of informal processes like trial by Tik Tok. 

Instead, formal court proceedings manipulate and mobilize social scripts around survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and around women and marginalized others, to reach their outcomes. We can hear how this strategy plays out through sound and voice, from sighing and interrupting to laughter and silence. The jury instructions in Depp v. Heard state that “Our system of law does not permit jurors to be governed by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion.” But despite claims that the legal system is based on objectivity and impartiality, we can hear that the law never exists in a bubble – and lawyers often and successfully rely on this very fact. 

Featured image: “Courtroom” by Flickr user Karen Neoh, CC BY 2.0

Nomi Dave is a former lawyer, interdisciplinary researcher, and co-director of the Sound Justice Lab at the University of Virginia, where she is Associate Professor of Music. She is currently co-writing  and co-directing a documentary film, Big Mouth, on a defamation lawsuit connected to a sexual violence case in Guinea.

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The Sound of What Becomes Possible: Language Politics and Jesse Chun’s 술래 SULLAE (2020)

“To this day I think about all the strange words I missed out on, all the losses I’m still carrying from faraway…I still think of the time when I spoke one language, and that language was whole.”

Chun 2020

Language can be a site of loss, a wholeness with which one, due to migration, has never really known. In the above passage, artist, Jesse Chun, reflects on how her grandmother spoke words in a language she did not understand, but yearned to hear and feel those sounds after her passing. There is a sonic residue that sticks to diasporic experiences. There are sounds that can stir up a blend of affect and ideation that is comforting when whiteness is unsettling. It is this disjuncture between words, meaning, and their sounds, that drew me to Chun’s work, 술래 SULLAE (2020). This piece reminded me of how sound, in its most ambiguous and queer forms, can hold the contingencies of history, language, memory, family, and the genealogies of loss that mark these sites of colonial dispossession.

술래 SULLAE (2020) is a single channeled video that draws from ganggang sullae, a Korean seasonal harvest and fertility ritual that integrates song and dance and is typically performed by women under the glow of moonlight. The participants hold hands forming a circle that through their movement, expands, disassembles, and changes its form. The songs can be both impromptu or pre-determined and encourages the participants to express their feelings in chorus with one another.

Video made by the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea (2008) for UNESCO “intangible heritage” application

Diana Seo Hyung Lee (2020) suggests that historically ganggang sullae was meant to provide a forum for its participants to express emotions connected to living within patriarchal systems of power and oppression. She writes: “the women participating would not have been able to, in their everyday lives, sing, speak loudly, nor leave the house at night, in the patriarchal society of ancient Korea. This dance was a license for their one release.” In 술래 SULLAE, the dance proves to be a defiant presence. The women flash on screen as an unbreakable chain reinscribing a gendered history with new sounds and images that gesture to emancipatory possibilities.

술래 SULLAE combines archival clips of ganggang sullae, index pages from intonation books, images of Hangul and English consonants and audio splices from YouTube tutorials on how to pronounce English correctly. In the video, language becomes unhinged from expectation but at the same time, given form through history. The sound of the English language is disembodied and spliced into phonemic pulses.  In 술래 SULLAE, Chun has created an encounter with the grammars of polyphony; a simultaneity of sounds that are both restrained by and resistant to the imposition of English on the Korean diaspora. Through what Chun has described as a form of “unlanguaging” following Rey Chow, her audience is witness to new meanings produced through the abstraction, manipulation, and redaction of sounds and symbols from the English language.

Still from 술래 SULLAE (2020), courtesy of the artist

Chun’s editing and manipulation of English sounds is intentional. In an interview with Art Forum, Chun shares: “Taking the sound apart but still keeping it within the conceptual framework of English made me think about what else is embedded in making a language. English is tied up with legacies of imperialism; there’s so much unseen violence that is part of how this language is institutionalized.” What remains after the edits is an inventory of sounds that disrupts the primacy of the vowel as central to English word construction and thus, central to colonial imagination.  

Like Chun, I realize that my conceptualizing of language is within an English framework, but my hope is that when we turn to the affective and when we begin to pull language a part, something different, something resistant, is produced.  I am neither an expert in English nor Korean linguistics, it was the sounds in this work that pulled me into it. In thinking with 술래 SULLAE, I’m interested in what becomes possible in the absence of the vowel. I turn to the interruptive potential of consonant sounds to affect and incite methods of communication outside of those steeped in colonial dominance. What does it mean to de-emphasize the function of vowel sounds in language and reorient our listening to the consonant? What do consonant sounds teach us about the sonics of race that underwrite hierarchies of language? What methods of communication become possible when we do away with words and are left with only their sonic substance?

술래 SULLAE 3-channel excerpt

Through her assemblage of consonant sounds in 술래 SULLAE, Chun is making a deliberate choice to describe and animate a politics of language through refusing its colonial enclosures and turning to the aesthetic in order hold the excesses of description. She refuses the vowel in this piece, not by denying its presence, but instead relegating it to the soundless and the unfamiliar, a space of, in her words, “untranslatability.” In this undoing, consonants become the emotive force where new meanings and orientations to the sounds that mark our words are forged.

술래 SULLAE opens with the sound ssshhh; a pairing of consonant sounds that is often associated with insisting on silence, a sound meant to reprimand. Chun extracts and emplaces this sound in a new aesthetic landscape that is independent and unregulated by colonial schemas of enunciation and translation. The prominent soundscapes of the video are consonant sounds and when removed from their phonetic relations to vowels these sounds undo the presumptive structuring or potential reprimand of English. In 술래 SULLAE, we are meant to experience the fullness of the consonants’ timbre…ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk…these edited clips of sound originally meant to instruct and assimilate speech into English pronunciations now serve a different function. For me, they secure Chun’s political orientation: one that is about the crafting of a world that involves the careful consideration of the logistics, function, and embedded emotions of the sounds that inhabit it.

score (for unlanguaging), 2020
graphite, watermarks, paper, aluminum frame, 13 x 16 inches

All languages contain their own unique set of vowels and consonants, but, Anne Carson reminds us that: “The importance of vowels to human speech has remained. There are words in English without consonants, but so central are vowels to word construction that there isn’t a word in English that doesn’t include a vowel.” In speech, consonants sounds are meant to break up the intended agenda of vowels. The ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk, are antithetical to the circle or the rounded mouth needed to voice a vowel sound. Unlike the openness of a vowel, producing consonant sounds involves a narrowing of the vocal tract. This narrowing is referred to as constriction or the obstruction of breath whereby sound is produced by a form of corporeal tension. Consonant sounds also demand all the mechanics of the mouth: the lips, the teeth, the tongue, and the palette. Shhhh, requires the corners of the lips to lower and rather than rounding, the lips become pursed, and teeth become exposed. Parts of the mouth are drawn in. The soft palate is raised, and the tongue reaches upwards towards the roof of the mouth without touching it and then the tip of the tongue lowers behind the teeth.

Consonants emerge out of collectivity. Where a vowel is sounded without vocal constraint, consonants require more effort. Their sounds are produced through intricate bodily choreographies in the mouth that involve both constriction and collaboration. Ganggangsullae likewise relies on effort and interdependence. Participants collectively determine the speed and/or shape of their dance. They may even become serpentine or separate into smaller circles depending on what the group decides. The dance also provides an aesthetic space for its participants to voice frustration, anger, and tension through song with the hopes of producing reprieve from gendered hardships. Chun has decided to withhold these songs from her audience; we never hear the women singing. Through this erasure, Chun embeds the consonant sound with affective force whereby a politics of language and gendered presence is enunciated through and beyond a form of silencing. The dance redirects trajectories of dominance whereby the shushing takes on a new voice imbued with agency and hope. Because of how Chun isolates and amplifies its sound, ssshhhh is free to take on different meanings and associations. For me, I was reminded of rushing water or gusts of wind, or the sound used to lull my child to sleep. I was brought into another index of knowing and relating.

술래 SULLAE, 3-channel installation view, 2020, courtesy of the artist

The sounds of language hold erasures and layered histories often obfuscated by our mundane encounters with them. Largely understood as the most sonorous part of the syllable, vowels produce the loudest speech sounds and their capacity for holding larger amplitudes or louder volumes have been linked to the sonic expression of emotion. Consonant sounds are more pragmatic than vowels. They are known for their functionality, for the ways in which they assemble the semantic structure of words and for their capacities to hold vowels in place or as Anne Carson describes as “delineating meaning amid the flow of open vowel sounds.” Consonant and vowel sounds map out different functional trajectories by virtue of the shape of mouth and orientation of breath that these sounds demand. Like Chun, I’m interested in what political orientations become possible when we source emotion elsewhere, beyond the confines of spoken words imposed upon us.

The word consonant is a noun, a word used to identify or classify, a semantic enclosure that establishes a subject or object. But unlike the word vowel, consonant is also an adjective. A consonant possesses the capacity to describe, to name, to tell us more. Adjectives parcel out description on states of being, in this way, they are inherently phenomenological. In 술래 SULLAE, Chun empties vowels of their sonic substance leaving behind traces of fragmented characters and differently shaped circles in their wake. They are stripped of breath and their symbolic value forming a new method of communication that reroutes expectations of what language, as we know it, can do and sound like. Like, ganggang sullae, the vowel is premised on the shape of a circle, but in 술래 SULLAE, Chun provokes us to think about what becomes possible beyond the circular structuring device, what becomes possible beyond the purview of the violent embeddedness of English and its colonial exigencies.

new moons, 2020, graphite on wall, surveillance mirror, 18 x 6 inches each
untitled (ㄷ), 2020, a functional concrete stool, courtesy of artist

Chun has noted that the moon that hovers above the ganggangsullae is yet another site of imperial conquest. In Art Forum, Chun states: “when I look up at it to feel comforted or to find solace, I’m reminded of colonial violence and an agenda that’s projected onto it. In that way, the moon also reflected how I see language.” Chun’s turn to consonants signals a reshaping of the colonial frame that does not disavow or idealize the legacies of imperialism on systems of communication, but instead highlights the tensions and obstructions produced in its shadows.

Featured image: 술래 SULLAE, 2020, single-channel version, courtesy of artist

Casey Mecija is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Media Studies at York University. Her current research examines sound as a mode of affective, psychic and social representation, specifically in relation to diasporic experience. Drawing on sound studies, queer diaspora studies and Filipinx Studies, her research considers how sensorial encounters are enmeshed and disciplined by social and psychic conditions. She is also a musician and filmmaker, whose work has received a number of accolades and has been presented internationally.

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