In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the third piece of this series, Jessica Teague grapples with Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” Her analysis reveals one of Mingus’s most critical questions: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself? You can catch up with the full series by clicking here. –Guest Editor Earl Brooks
When jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus first set out to write his memoirs in the mid-1950s he told his wife Judy that he “wanted a chance to write about the true jazz scene that has made our masters millions and taken the most famed to their penniless graves as the only escape from the invisible chains on black jazz as an art” (Santoro 175). By the time Beneath the Underdog saw publication nearly two decades later in 1971, it was considerably slimmed down from the 800+ page manuscript Mingus had produced. Financially strained and evicted from his downtown loft, Mingus hoped that the book would be a best seller and offer economic freedom from the music industry.
But as many have noted, Beneath the Underdog is not your typical jazz autobiography (see Krin Gabbard, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Gene Santoro, and Daniel Stein). Here, Mingus rejects standard notions of the self declaring in the first sentence of his book: “In other words, I am three.” By writing in a mode that wavers between the lurid world of popular pulp-heroes and psychological high-modernism, Mingus’s autobiography (like his music) treads a slender line between clowning and critique.
In one of the most infamous scenes from Beneath the Underdog, Mingus hyperbolically describes having intercourse with twenty-three prostitutes over the course of one night in Tijuana, Mexico. The incident follows the breakup of his marriage with his first wife Barbara and his affair with Nesa Morgan, the wife of a club owner. Recounting his superhuman exploits in the language of the comic book, Mingus turns what might have been a display of his sexual prowess into a clowning circus act, complete with zany sound effects and an off-kilter sense of rhythm. It’s a scene that simultaneously reinforces the stereotype of the African American male’s hypersexuality and deflates it with comedy:
“No! Me, sir!”
“You like fooke?”
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
“Two dollars, sir!”
(Beneath the Underdog 176-177)
There is a certain ambiguity to the poolside scene. Mingus the narrator is notably absent and the action proceeds without any visual clues—he gives the reader only fragments of dialogue that alternate between the prostitutes selling their wares and the side conversation between Mingus and his friend Hickey, who comments upon his sexual performance. What is more, the onomatopoetic sound effects employed are demonstrably silly and absurd. There are no moans or sighs of ecstasy here—each act is punctuated by a “BLAM! BLAM!” (178). Sex is transactional and performative for Mingus, but not pleasurable.
The pulpy, comic book quality of the Tijuana scene makes Mingus a superhuman like a character from The Fantastic Four, but it also makes him into a two-dimensional cartoon. This undercutting of the self and the performative body characterizes Mingus’s concept of the fractured self of the black jazz musician—a theme he takes up in his music as well as his writing (e.g. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um). Interestingly, Mingus’s affinity for comics would surface again and in 1966 he collaborated with African American illustrator Gene Bilbrew to create a comic strip-style advertisement for the Charles Mingus Record Club that appeared in the Village Voice.
Biographers have argued that Mingus included these likely fictionalized sex scenes as a way to sell more books and evade the exploitative economics of the music industry. However, the comic book sound effects that render Mingus’s sexuality humorously exaggerated comes at the expense of Latinx women. Despite having grown up in a multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles, his representation of the voices of the Mexican prostitutes flattens their identities and plays upon ethnic stereotypes. With each “Sí señor,” the women are presented as both sexually promiscuous and submissive. Mingus’s relationships with women were fraught, and his anxieties about his own sexuality were inevitably tied up with race. His tendency to treat women as sex-objects is similarly on display in the comic strip above, in which a suggestively-attired white female hipster acts as a narc, exposing a bootleg record dealer. “Uh, you got anything by Charlie Mingus? Uh-h, y’know, like uh… under the counter?” she asks, dripping innuendo.
And yet, these cringe-inducing scenes are often complicated by Mingus’s use of pimping and prostitution as metaphors for exploitation throughout his Beneath the Underdog. At various points he portrays himself as both prostitute and pimp, both masculine and feminine. When his friend Hickey seems to question Mingus’s extreme behavior, he responds: “In this white man’s society what else have I got” (178). Even in moments that indulge in humor, such as the Tijuana scene, Beneath the Underdog darkly implies a pimp or be pimped world.
Mingus would become known for writing music with a political edge—one might think of “Fables of Faubus” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)—but perhaps the closest musical relative to the satirical Tijuana scene is Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” In the liner notes for the album, penned by Nat Hentoff, Mingus describes that as he wrote the tune, he realized that it had two parts, and started to imagine it as the story of the clown. He then told the story to radio celebrity Jean Shepherd and allowed Shepherd to improvise the telling of the story during the recording. As Mingus described it to Hentoff, the story was
…about a clown, who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; leaves more up to the listener.
Like the Tijuana story, “The Clown” also incorporates sound effects, and it opens with the hollow laughter of men and women in a nightclub. As auditory phenomena, sound effects are especially interesting because of their artificiality—they are performances of sound. In a cinematic or radio context, sound effects typically amplify an action. Even when sounded, rather than written, they seem to act onomatopoetically. Thus, the addition of the laugh track on “The Clown” is both performance and commentary.
But part of the genius of Mingus’s composition is the way he incorporates the logic of the sound effect into the music itself. The vocal quality of his bass, the wah-wahs of the horns, and the rim shots on the drums are but one piece of this totalizing sonic landscape. “The Clown” borrows stylistic elements from other recognizable genres (like, circus music) to evoke the playfully comedic and absurd, but a second, more serious and ironic story of exploitation runs concurrently and undercuts the first narrative’s simplicity. On the one hand, we hear the more jaunty, carnivalesque melody of the trombone (Jimmy Knepper) and the tenor saxophone (Shafi Hadi) that lilts in 6/8, but that melody is punctuated by moments of dissonance and free playing under the narration—stretching the space between comedy and tragedy. The question he seems to ask in both the Tijuana story from Beneath the Underdog and in “The Clown” is essentially the same: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself?
Black musicians who pushed back were often called “angry,” even as music didn’t always sound that way. One might think of the contrast between seemingly jaunty, upbeat rhythm of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and its devastating lyrics. It is the sound of political and existential crisis. Both “The Clown,” and the Tijuana scene indicate Mingus’s heightened awareness that, as much as he was known for his music, he was also known for his explosive behavior at performances—the “angry man of jazz.” As Eric Porter has pointed out, Mingus’s “irrational behavior appealed to audiences at a moment when many members of American society (of whom Beat writers were emblematic) were looking to the oppositional aspects of black culture for solutions to their dissatisfaction with consumerism, conservative politics, repressed sexuality, constrictive gender roles, and other social ills” (130-131). 1957, the year Mingus recorded The Clown, was the same year that Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro” and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. It was also the year that Governor Faubus of Arkansas attempted to halt the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
Subtle they may be, but the use of comic sound effects in works like Beneath the Underdog and “The Clown” highlight the absurdity of the roles black jazz musicians had come to play within American culture. In worrying the line between the comic and the tragic, the explosive and the reflective, Charles Mingus refused to concede to the identity that had been shaped by the music industry, by the press, and by institutionalized racism.
Featured Image: Charles Mingus 1976, Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, Colorized by SO!
Jessica Teague is an Assistant Professor of English at the University Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and specializes in 20th and 21st-century American Literature and Sound Studies. The intersections between literature, sound, and technology are the focus of her research, and her book, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: from the Phonograph to the Remix, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly and Sound Studies, and she has also been the recipient of research fellowships from the ACLS and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia. (PhD, MA, Columbia University; BA, UCLA)
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club–Chelsea Adams
On Ventriloquism, Dummies, and Trump’s Voice–Sarah Kessler
Afrofuturism, Public Enemy, and Fear of a Black Planet at 25–André Carrington
Lastly, Jennifer, regular contributor Osvaldo Oyola, and I will be presenting at this year’s MLA. Jennifer is participating in a roundtable Saturday at 3:30; look out for session #588, “Race and Poetics: On Aesthetic Practice in Ethnic Studies,” which considers cultural difference as seen in different genres and media. Osvaldo is presenting on Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in session #97, “American Linguistic Plurality.” I will be presenting at a non-sound-studies panel on Friday at noon titled “How Did I Get Here? Our ‘Altac’ Jobs” (s#270). My topic will be how I moved from an adjuncting job to an alternative academic position and how this moved changed my ideas of a career in academia.
If you are not present at MLA, please follow along via Twitter! You can check out the #MLA13 hashtag, but if you’re interested in a particular session from the ones below, you can also search on Twitter for the session number during its scheduled time. You can also check out the conference action by following the official Sounding Out! twitter account (commandeered by our Editor-in-Chief) or following my personal account, @literarychica, for our live-tweets from MLA 2013.
Please comment to let us know what you think–both before and after MLA 2012. If I somehow missed you or your panel in this round up, please let me know!: firstname.lastname@example.org
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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THURSDAY, January 3
Thursday, January 3
.3. Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates
Republic A, Sheraton
Program arranged by the MLA Office of Programs. Presiding: Alison Byerly, Middlebury Coll.; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA; Katherine A. Rowe, Bryn Mawr Coll.
Facilitated discussion about evaluating work in digital media (e.g., scholarly
editions, databases, digital mapping projects, born- digital creative or scholarly
work). Designed for both creators of digital materials and administrators
or colleagues who evaluate those materials, the workshop will propose
strategies for documenting, presenting, and evaluating such work.
22. Expanding Access: Building Bridges within Digital Humanities
A special session.
Presiding: Trent M. Kays, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities; Lee Skallerup Bessette, Morehead State Univ.
Marc Fortin, Queen’s Univ.
Alexander Gil, Univ. of Virginia
Brian Larson, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Sophie Marcotte, Concordia Univ.
Ernesto Priego, London, England
36. Languages of the Occupy Movement
Program arranged by the Division on Language and Society. Presiding: Frank Farmer, Univ. of Kansas
Corinne Seals, Georgetown Univ., “Examining the Linguistic Landscape of Occupy”
Corey J. Frost, New Jersey City Univ., “Occupy and Rhetorics of Amplification”
Keith Spencer, Carnegie Mellon Univ., “Class, Race, and the ‘Common Man’: Interviews with Occupy Pittsburgh”
Respondent: Frank Farmer
40. Hearing and Seeing Anew: Ralph Ellison’s Aural and Visual ;8Registers
Beacon A, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Horace Porter, Univ. of Iowa
Shanna Greene Benjamin, Grinnell Coll. “Listening inside a Glass Box: Mary Rambo’s Lessons for Invisible Man”
Herman Beavers, Univ. of Pennsylvania, “The Noisy Lostness: Oppositionality and Acousmatic Subjectivity in Invisible Man”
Lena Michelle Hill, Univ. of Iowa, “Silent Sights of Fatherhood in Three Days before the Shooting…”
Respondent: Kenneth W. Warren, Univ. of Chicago
94. Modernism and the Senses
Beacon D, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Alex Niven, Univ. of Oxford; Stephen Ross, Univ. of Oxford, Saint John’s Coll.
Jonathan Day, Univ. of Oxford, Saint John’s Coll. “Cognitive Realism and the Problem of Qualia”
Matt Langione, Univ. of California, Berkeley, “Modernizing Modernism: Intentionality, Neuroscience, and the Sense of Modernist Poetry”
97. American Linguistic Plurality
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Literature of the United States in Languages Other Than English. Presiding: Heidi Kathleen Kim,Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Audrey Wu Clark,United States Naval Acad., “Dialects of Regionalist Modernism in Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance”
Benjamin A. Railton, Fitchburg State Univ., “Vocal Color: Recovering an Alternative, Multilingual American Literary Realism”
Osvaldo Oyola, Binghamton Univ., State Univ. of New York, “Traduciendo de el Dork: Cultural and Lingual Syncretism in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,”
Melissa Dennihy, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York “Hybrid Tongues: Linguistic Innovations and Inventions in Contemporary Multiethnic United States Literature”
102. Digital Diasporas
Public Garden, Sheraton
Program arranged by the Division on Black American Literature and Culture. Presiding: Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Stanford Univ.
Corrie Claiborne, Morehouse Coll., “Living Word”
Adam Banks, Univ. of Kentucky, “Digital Griots”
Marcyliena Morgan, Harvard Univ., “Hip- Hop Archives”
107. The Linguistic Construction of Narrative Space
Program arranged by the Division on Linguistic Approaches to Literature. Presiding: Monika Fludernik, Univ. of Freiburg
Robert Troyer, Western Oregon Univ., “Locating Action in the Postapocalyptic Text World of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”
Birgitta Svensson, Stockholm Univ., “Acting, Being, Sensing, and Saying: Analyzing Characters with a Functional Language Approach,”
Pauline Bleuse, Grand Valley State Univ., “Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; or, The Use of an Unfamiliar Language to Relate Controversy”
125. Translating for (and from) the Italian Screen: Dubbing and Subtitles
Program arranged by the American Association for Italian Studies. Presiding: Philip Balma, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
Anna Belladelli, Univ. of Verona, “Misrepresentations and Re- representations of Otherness in the Italian Dubbing of United States TV Series,”
Giulia Centineo, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz “Dubbing Hollywood and Difference,”
Daniele Fioretti, Miami Univ., Oxford, “Qualunquista Equals Socialist? Political Issues in the Subtitling of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La ricotta,”
129. Teaching in the Shallows: Reading, Writing, and Teaching in the Digital Age
A special session. Presiding: Robert R. Bleil, Coll. of Coastal Georgia; Jennifer Gray, Coll. of Coastal Georgia.
Speakers: Susan Cook, Southern New Hampshire Univ.; Christopher Dickman, Saint Louis Univ.; T. Geiger, Syracuse Univ.; Jennifer Gray; Matthew Parfitt, Boston Univ.; James Sanchez, Texas Christian Univ.
Respondent: Robert R. Bleil
Nicholas Carr’s 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains argue that the paradigms of our digital lives have shifted significantly in two decades of living life online. This roundtable unites teachers of composition and literature to explore cultural, psychological, and developmental changes for students and teachers.
140. Illness and Disability in Asian American Literature
Program arranged by the Division on Asian American Literature. Presiding: Anita Mannur, Miami Univ., Oxford
Cynthia Wu, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York, “Daniel K. Inouye’s Journey to Washington: Disability and the Hidden Privileges of Local Japanese Ascendancy in Hawai‘i,”
Ellen Samuels, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, “Multilinguality and ‘Deaf Speech’ in Betty Quan’s Mother Tongue,”
Rick H. Lee, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, “SIN, HIV, SFO: AIDS, the Body, and Justin Chin’s Corpus,”
James Kyung-Jin Lee, Univ. of California, Irvine, “Against Asian American Health: Vibrant Secularities and Medical Narratives of Illness”
142. What’s Place Got to Do with It? Voices and Vision in Midwestern Literature
Beacon G, Sheraton
Program arranged by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Presiding: Marilyn Judith Atlas, Ohio Univ., Athens
Andy Oler, Indiana Univ., Bloomington, “‘High and Fervently They Were Singing’: Voice, Space, and Midwestern Modernity in Langston Hughes’s 1930 Novel Not without Laughter”
Alexander Engebretson, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York, “The Midwest Seen New Englandly: Regional Tensions in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead”
James Alfred Lewin, Shepherd Univ., “Sara Paretsky’s ‘Other’ Chicago”
152. Political Trauma and Literary Alchemy: Testimonios and the Regenerative Power of Language
A special session. Presiding: Jennifer Browdy De Hernandez, Bard Coll. at Simon’s Rock
Speakers: Nicole Caso, Bard Coll.; Martha Helena Montoya Velez, Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México; Alicia Partnoy, Loyola Marymount Univ.; Maria del Carmen Sillato, Univ. of Waterloo; Y. L. Mariela Wong, Coll. of Mount Saint Vincent
To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup in Chile and nearly forty years since the military takeover in Argentina, this session features three Southern Cone testimonialists, who will read passages from their works, and three respondents, who will lead a discussion on the power of narrative to resist a legacy of violence and fear. For excerpts from the three testimonials, visit bethechange2012.wordpress.com/mla-2013-testimonios.
155. Movements, Incantations, and Parables of Queer Performance
A special session. Presiding: Ann Pellegrini, New York Univ.
Sean Edgecomb, Univ. of Queensland, “Queer Movement: The Mystique of Alexander Guerra’s Traveling Rabbit”
Eng- Beng Lim, Brown Univ., “Incantatory Pinkness from Singapore to Utah”
Carrie J. Preston, Boston Univ., “Queer Christian Submission in Drag: Benjamin Britten and William Plomer’s Curlew River”
165. Beyond the PDF: Experiments in Open-Access Scholarly Publishing
A special session
Speakers: Douglas M. Armato, Univ. of Minnesota Press; Jamie Skye Bianco, Univ. of Pittsburgh; Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York; Jennifer Laherty, Indiana Univ., Bloomington; Monica McCormick, New York Univ.; Katie Rawson, Emory Univ.
As open- access scholarly publishing matures and movements such as the Elsevier boycott continue to grow, open- access publications have begun to move beyond the simple (but crucial) principle of openness toward an ideal of interactivity. This session will explore innovative examples of open-access scholarly publishing that showcase new types of social, interactive, mixed- media texts.
For abstracts and discussion, visit beyondthepdf.wordpress.com/ after 1 Nov.
167. Digital Humanities and Theory
A special session. Presiding: Stefano Franchi, Texas A&M Univ., College Station
Geoffrey Rockwell, Univ. of Alberta, “Theoretical Things for the Humanities”
Stefano Franchi, “From Artificial Intelligence to Artistic Practices: A New Theoretical Model for the Digital Humanities,”
David Washington, Loyola Univ., New Orleans, “Object- Oriented Ontology: Escaping the Title of the Book”
For abstracts, visit dhcommons.tamu.edu.
177. Hybridity and Multilingualism in Yiddish
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Yiddish Literature. Presiding: Sarah Ponichtera, Columbia Univ.
Ken Frieden, Syracuse Univ., “Mysticism and Its Discontents: Hasidic and Anti- Hasidic Narratives between Hebrew and Yiddish”
Nikki Halpern, Université Paris Diderot 7, “Memory Palace, Yiddish Ghetto (Isaac Bashevis Singer and That Vexatious Yiddish Identity)”
Saul Zaritt, Jewish Theological Seminary, “The Master from Krochmalna Street: Isaac Bashevis Singer and World Literature,”
Friday, January 4
204. Theorizing Indigenous Literatures in Latin America
A special session. Presiding: Kelly S. McDonough, Univ. of Texas, Austin
Ulises Juan Zevallos-Aguilar, Ohio State Univ., Columbus, “Diglossia and Linguistic Registers: Toward a Sociolinguistic Reading of Peruvian Quechua Literature/ Hacia una lectura sociolingüística de la literatura quechua peruana”
Susan Foote, Univ. of Concepción, Chile, “Mapuche Testimony and Poetry in Chile: Poetic and Prose Discourse over Time”
Adam Coon, Univ. of Texas, Austin, “Icnotlahtolli / Migrant Words: Indigenous Theoretical Approaches to Migration in Contemporary Nahua Literature”
Ramsey Tracy, Trinity Coll., CT, “Indigenous Narrative from Oral Performance to Text: Semantic and Structural Aesthetic Concerns as Applied to the Work of Literary Translation”
209. Humanities in the Twenty- First Century: Innovation in Research and Practice
Program arranged by the Division on Teaching as a Profession. Presiding: Christine Henseler, Union Coll., NY
Lynn Pasquerella, Mount Holyoke Coll., “The Promise of Humanities Practice”
David Theo Goldberg, Univ. of California, Irvine, “Making the Humanities ‘Count’”
Jane Aikin, National Endowment for the Humanities, “The National Endowment for the Humanities”
Christine Henseler, “The Humanities in the Digital Age”
220. Image, Voice, Text: Canadian Literature
Beacon D, Sheraton
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Canadian Literature in English. Presiding: Sophie McCall, Simon Fraser Univ., Burnaby
Sunny Chan, Univ. of British Columbia, “AvantGarde.ca: Toward a Canadian Alienethnic Poetics of the Internet”
Hannah McGregor, Univ. of Guelph, “Intermedial Witnessing in Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons”
Sarah Henzi, Univ. of Montreal, “Aboriginal New Media: Alternative Forms of Storytelling”
For abstracts, write to email@example.com after 15 Nov.
223. “Spanglish” and Identity within and outside the Classroom
Program arranged by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. Presiding: Domnita Dumitrescu, California State Univ., Los Angeles
Robert Train, Sonoma State Univ., “Becoming Bilingual, Becoming Ourselves: Archival Memories of Spanglish in Early Californian Epistolary Texts”
Jorgelina Fidia Corbatta, Wayne State Univ., “Gloria Anzaldúa’s Discourse as a Mestiza and Queer Writer”
Ana Sánchez-Muñoz, California State Univ., Northridge, “‘Who soy yo?’: The Creative Use of Spanglish to Express a Hybrid Identity in Chicano/a Heritage Language Learners of Spanish”
Regan Postma, Albertson Coll. of Idaho, “‘¿Por qué leemos esto en la clase de español?’: The Politics of Teaching Literature in Spanglish”
236. Representations of Cultural Resistance: Deafness and Power
A special session. Presiding: Rebecca Garden, Upstate Medical Univ., State Univ. of New York
Christopher Becker Krentz, Univ. of Virginia, “Deaf Literature, Medicine, and the Paradoxes of Identity”
Rebecca Garden, “Reproducing Deafness: Visual Culture and Pathology”
Lennard J. Davis, Univ. of Illinois, Chicago, “Cochlear Wars: Deaf Culture against Science?”
237. Access to What? A Roundtable on Public Scholarship, Community Engagement, and Diversity
Fairfax A, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Bruce Burgett, Univ. of Washington, Bothell
Speakers: Jodi Melamed, Marquette Univ.; Ifeoma C. K. Nwankwo, Vanderbilt Univ.; Imani Perry, Princeton Univ.; Chandan Reddy, Univ. of Washington, Seattle; Doris Sommer, Harvard Univ.
Respondent: Gregory S. Jay, Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Questions of access in higher education most often focus on who gets in, who is left out, and how the sorting of life chances plays out across the larger institutional landscape. (is roundtable shifts that conversation by linking the question of “Access for whom?” to the equally pressing issue of “Access to what?”
239. Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities
A special session. Presiding: Adeline Koh, Richard Stockton Coll. of New Jersey
Speakers: Moya Bailey, Emory Univ.; Anne Cong-Huyen, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Hussein Keshani, Univ. of British Columbia; Maria Velazquez, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
Respondent: Alondra Nelson, Columbia Univ.
This panel examines the politics of race, ethnicity, and silence in the digital humanities. How has the digital humanities remained silent on issues of race and ethnicity? How does this silence reinforce unspoken assumptions and doxa? What is the function of racialized silences in digital archival projects?
For links and participant biographies, visit www.adelinekoh .org/ blog/2012/04/02/racend/.
270. How Did I Get Here? Our “Altac” Jobs
Back Bay B, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Brenda Bethman, Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City
Speakers: Donna M. Bickford, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Brian Croxall, Emory Univ.; Kathryn Linder, Suffolk Univ.; Liana Silva, Univ. of Kansas; Sarah Werner, Folger Shakespeare Library
Respondent: C. Shaun Longstreet, Marquette Univ.
This roundtable features “alternative academics” who will discuss the paths to their “altac” job, including opportunities and challenges that come with altac positions, strategies universities might employ to maximize and leverage PhD- prepared administrators, preparing graduate students for altac jobs, the role of mentoring, and differences between altac, adjunct, and tenure- track jobs.
For a longer description of the panel and panelists’ bios, see bit.ly/JqjHdj
295. Getting Funded in the Humanities: An NEH Workshop
Program arranged by the Office of the Executive Director. Presiding: Jason+C. Rhody, National Endowment for the Humanities
This workshop will highlight recent awards and outline current funding opportunities. In addition to emphasizing grant programs that support individual and collaborative research and education, the workshop will include information on the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. A question-and-answer period will follow.
296. Tuning In to the Phoneme: Phonetic and Phonological Nuances in Second Language Acquisition
A forum arranged by the Linguistic Society of America and the MLA. Presiding: Bryan Kirschen, Univ. of California, Los Angeles
Christine Shea, Univ. of Iowa, “Orthography Modulates Phonological Activation in a Second Language”
Jane Hacking, Univ. of Utah; Rachel Hayes- Harb, Univ. of Utah, “Orthographic and Auditory Contributions to Second- Language Word Learning: Native English Speakers Learning Russian Lexical Stress”
Polina Vasiliev, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, “Native English Speakers’ Perception of Spanish and Portuguese Vowels: The Initial State of L2 Acquisition”
Viola Miglio, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Eva Wheeler, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, “Pronunciation of Basque as L2 by American English Native Speakers: Problems and L1 Interference”
The difficulties L2 learners have in perceiving and producing target- language sounds accurately manifest themselves in the perception and production of vowels, consonants, and suprasegmental features like intonation and stress, as well as in word recognition. Each presentation brings a different perspective on these issues, demonstrating a variety of means and methodologies available in exploring such themes.
For further details, visit www .linguisticsociety .org/meetings-institutes/ annual-meetings/2013.
343. All Ears: Listening as a Way of Understanding Literature
Independence East, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Chiara Alfano, Univ. of Sussex
Speakers: David Ben- Merre, State Univ. of New York, Buffalo State Coll.; Paul Gordon, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder; May Peckham, Washington Univ. in St. Louis; Jessica Teague, Columbia Univ.
This roundtable seeks to start a discussion on the interface between accounts of listening to literature and listening as reading literature. Although the specific focus will be on literature and theory of the twentieth century, the roundtable will resonate with all who are interested in learning to read with their ears.
350. Puerto Rican Print Cultures
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Puerto Rican Literature and Culture. Presiding: Tomás Urayoán Noel, Univ. at Albany, State Univ. of New York
Kahlil Chaar-Pérez, Harvard Univ., “Letters of Bondage: Blackface and the Merengue Craze in El Ponceño, 1852– 54”
Anne Garland Mahler, Emory Univ., “The Linguistic Politics of Piri Thomas: African American Vernacular English and Racial Discourse in Down These Mean Streets”
Juan Rodriguez, Georgia Inst. of Tech., “Poesía, imagen y tecnología en Rizoma de Áurea María Sotomayor”
Respondent: Rubén Ríos Ávila, Univ. of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
353. Avenues of Access: Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication
Republic Ballroom, Sheraton
A linked session arranged in conjunction with The Presidential Forum: Avenues of Access (112).
Presiding: Michael Bérubé, Penn State Univ., University Park
Matthew Kirschenbaum, Univ. of Maryland, College Park, “The Mirror and the LAMP”
Cathy N. Davidson, Duke Univ., “Access Demands a Paradigm Shift”
Bethany Nowviskie, Univ. of Virginia, “Resistance in the Materials”
The news that digital humanities are the next big thing must come as a pleasant surprise to people who have been working in the field for decades. Yet only recently has the scholarly community at large realized that developments in new media have implications not only for the form but also for the content of scholarly communication. This session will explore some of those implications—for scholars, for libraries, for journals, and for the idea of intellectual property.
363. African Testimonial Literature
Program arranged by the Division on African Literatures. Presiding: Joya F. Uraizee, Saint Louis Univ.
Kimberly Nance, Illinois State Univ., “‘Use Beginning, Middle, and End’: Testimonial Narrative as Reintegrative Therapy in Delia Jarrett- Macauley’s Moses, Citizen and Me”
Tamara Moellenberg, Univ. of Oxford, Brasenose Coll., “New Lacunae: Silence and the Child Soldier”
James D. B. McCorkle, Hobart and William Smith Colls., “In the Shadow of Rwanda: Boubacar Boris Diop, Tierno Monénembo, and Véronique Tadjo and the Literature of Testimony”
Jessica Roberts, Queen’s Univ., “Contested Testimonials: Child Soldier Memoirs”
399. Term Limits: The Language of the Presidential Campaign
Program arranged by the Division on Language and Society. Presiding: Bruce W. Robbins, Columbia Univ.
Speakers: David Bromwich, Yale Univ.; Donald E. Pease, Dartmouth Coll.; Hortense Jeanette Spillers, Vanderbilt Univ.
Three perspectives by distinguished scholars on the language used by the candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign.
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SATURDAY, January 5
SATURDAY, January 5
432. Aural Literature and Close Listening
Beacon H, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Michelle Nancy Levy, Simon Fraser Univ., Burnaby
Matthew Rubery, Univ. of London, Queen Mary Coll. “The Case against Audiobooks”
Cornelius Collins, Fordham Univ., Bronx, “Aural Literacy in a Visual Era: Is Anyone Listening?”
Justin St. Clair, Univ. of South Alabama, “Novel Sound Tracks and the Future of Hybridized Reading”
Lisa A. Hollenbach, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, “Poetry as MP3: PennSound, Poetry Recording, and the New Digital Archive”
For abstracts, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
442. Reading Aloud to Revise: Exploring the Role of Intonation in Silent Written Language
Fairfax B, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Peter Elbow, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst
Reading aloud to revise is a celebrated practice, but it is too little taught as a concrete skill and too little analyzed from a linguistic point of view. In this workshop, participants will explore this valuable teaching technique. We will work on sample passages by reading them aloud with attention to rhythm and sound and will analyze the linguistics of intonation to show why the tongue is a reliable guide to strong clear prose.
For two chapters from Elbow’s recent book, write to email@example.com.
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m.
497. Redefining the “Fossilized” Language of the Twenty- First Century
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on General Linguistics. Presiding: Marnie Jo Petray, California Polytechnic State Univ., San Luis Obispo
Bryan Kirschen, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, “Contemporary Linguistic Features of ‘Cervantine’ Judeo- Spanish”
Nassima Neggaz, Georgetown Univ., “Syria’s Arab Spring: Language Enrichment in the Midst of Revolution”
Covadonga Lamar Prieto, Univ. of California, Riverside, “Fossilized Features in 1:45–3:00 p.m.Contemporary California Spanish and Their Relation with Historical California Spanish”
539. Gendered Blues Subjectivities and Racial Politics across Southern History
Beacon F, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Adam Gussow, Univ. of Mississippi
Adam Gussow, “Thee Devil’s Son-in- Law: Blues Masculinity, Interracial Sexuality, and the Infrapolitics of Jim Crow”
Courtney George, Columbus State Univ., “‘What Would the Music Be Like?’: Revolutionary Music in Alice Walker’s Meridian”
Nicholas Gorrell, Univ. of Mississippi, “‘If Your Heart Been Broken, Call on the Handy Man’: Female Sexuality and Revisionist Masculinities in Contemporary Southern Soul-Blues”
Respondent: R. A. Lawson, Dean Coll.
For abstracts, write to firstname.lastname@example.org after 15 Nov.
546. Taste, Touch, Hear: Race, Science, and the Senses in the Nineteenth Century
Beacon A, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Pomona Coll.
Uri McMillan, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, “An Echo across Centuries: Joice Heth’s Sonic of Dissent”
Kyla Schuller, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, “Touching Time: Frances E.W. Harper’s Evolutionary Aesthetics”
Kyla Wazana Tompkins, “Lifestyle Eugenics: Joel Chandler Harris and the Birth of Victim Citizenship”
550. The Classroom as Interface
A special session. Presiding: Kathi Inman Berens, Univ. of Southern California
Elizabeth Mathews Losh, Univ. of California, San Diego, “The Campus as Interface: Screening the University”
Jason Farman, Univ. of Maryland, College Park, “Being Distracted in the Digital Age”
Kathi Inman Berens, “Virtual Classroom Software: A Medium-Specific Analysis”
Leeann Hunter, Georgia Inst. of Tech., “The Multisensory Classroom”
566. Wonder and Marvel in Cross- Cultural Encounter
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Romance Literary Relations. Presiding: Lynn Ramey, Vanderbilt Univ.
Paula Park, Univ. of Texas, Austin, “The Utopian Impulse to Archive New Sounds in Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps”
Laure M. Marcellesi, Dartmouth Coll., “Sexual Misunderstandings: First European Encounters with Tahiti”
Danielle Carlotti-Smith, Univ. of Virginia, “Le choc avec le réel: Intertextual Encounters in the French West Indies”
For abstracts, visit my.vanderbilt .edu/lynnramey/mla2013/.
569. One Hundred Years of The Rite of Spring
Program arranged by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. Presiding: Rebecca Jane Stanton, Barnard Coll.
Francoise Rosset, Wheaton Coll., MA, “The Rite of Spring: Roerich’s Pagan Past”
Marilyn Sizer, Seattle, WA, “The Rite of Spring: Stravinsky’s Mysterium”
Carol Rowntree Jones, Nottingham, England, “The Rite of Spring: Pina Bausch; Danger; and a Woman, Writing”
Respondent: Harlow L. Robinson, Northeastern Univ.
For abstracts, visit http://mlaslavic2013.blogspot.com/.
577. Science and Technology in Afro-Modern Literature
Beacon D, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Marques Redd, Marquette Univ.
Marques Redd, “The Technology of the Ancient Egyptian Future: The Cosmic Poetry of Sun Ra”
Zakiyyah Jackson, Univ. of Virginia, “The Future Is a Parasite: Octavia Butler and Posthumanism”
Beth M. Coleman, Harvard Univ., “Race as Technology: Ideologies and Literatures of ‘ Post- Race’ Identity”
583. Intellectual and Cognitive Disability Studies
Beacon F, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: John N. Allen, Milwaukee Area Technical Coll.
Sarah Pett, Univ. of York, “‘Aphasia’s Fingerprints’: Language Impairment, Autobiography, and Fiction in Paul West’s The Shadow Factory”
Michelle Jarman, Univ. of Wyoming, “The Savant and the Silent Subject: Challenging the Hierarchy of the Autism Spectrum”
John N. Allen, “The Reception of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and the Discourse of Down Syndrome”
588. Race and Poetics: On Aesthetic Practice in Ethnic Studies
Beacon A, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Nathan Grant, Saint Louis Univ.
Speakers: John Alba Cutler, Northwestern Univ.; Samantha Pinto, Georgetown Univ.; Libbie Ri-in, Georgetown Univ.; Jennifer Stoever- Ackerman, Binghamton Univ., State Univ. of New York
Respondent: Kandice Chuh, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York
This roundtable will consider cultural forms of difference across a range of genres, including the lyric, collaborative authorship, and radio. We will focus on how aesthetics shifts some of the major tenants of ethnic studies, looking at major as well as neglected authors across African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and anglophone postcolonial studies.
616. Poetic Occupations: From the Great Depression to the “Great Recession”
Independence East, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Sarah Ehlers, Univ. of South Dakota
John Marsh, Penn State Univ., University Park, “Percentile Poetics and Distributive Justice”
Sarah Ehlers, “‘The Left Needs Rhythm’: Poetry Speaks the Depression”
Paula Rabinowitz, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities, “Class Ventriloquism: Women’s Letters, Lectures, Lyrics”
621. Reading, Reading Machines, and Machine Reading
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Media and Literature. Presiding: Jessica Pressman, American Council of Learned Socs.
Matthew Rubery, Univ. of London, Queen Mary Coll., “Phonographic Reading Machines”
Katherine Wilson, Alelphi Univ., “Mechanical Mediations of Miniature Text: Reading Microform”
Mara Mills, New York Univ., “Between Human and Machine, a Printed Sheet: (e Early History of OCR (Optical Character Recognition)”
631. Literary Theory and American Sign Language Literature
Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession. Presiding: Jill Marie Bradbury, Gallaudet Univ.
Rebecca Terese Sanchez, Fordham Univ., Bronx, “‘Human Bodies Are Words’: The Poetics of Deaf Voice”
“The Gaze: Film Studies and the Flying Words Project,” Pamela Kincheloe, Rochester Inst. of Tech.
“ASL Protest Poetry and Refashioning the Traditional Oral Epic,” Kristen%C. Harmon, Gallaudet Univ.
639. Two Tools for Student- Generated Digital Projects: WordPress and Omeka in the Classroom
Back Bay B, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Gabrielle Dean, Johns Hopkins Univ., MD
Speakers: Amanda L. French, George Mason Univ.; George Williams, Univ. of South Carolina, Spartanburg
This “master class” will focus on integrating two digital tools into the classroom to facilitate studentgenerated projects: Omeka, for the creation of archives and exhibits, and WordPress, for the creation of blogs and Web sites. We will discuss what kinds of assignments work with each tool, how to get started, and how to evaluate assignments. Bring a laptop (not a tablet) for hands- on work.
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SUNDAY, January 6
Sunday, January 6
692. Baroque Forces
Program arranged by the Division on Colonial Latin American Literatures. Presiding: Anna H. More, Univ. of California, Los Angeles
Ivonne del Valle, Univ. of California, Berkeley, “Colonial Baroque: Violence as History”
Lisa Voigt, Ohio State Univ., Columbus, “Festive Forces in Potosí”
José Francisco Robles, El Colegio de México, “Sigüenza y Vico”
Rachel Spaulding, Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque, “The Baroque Voice: Syncretic Afro- Catholic Performance and Power in the Visions of Early Modern Brazil’s Rosa Maria Egipçiaca”
693. Theorizing Digital Practice, Practicing Digital Theory
Liberty A, Sheraton
Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Information Technology. Presiding: Victoria E. Szabo, Duke Univ.
Tanya E. Clement, Univ. of Texas, Austin, “What Text Mining and Visualizations Have to Do with Feminist Scholarly Inquiries”
Dana Solomon, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, “Building the Infrastructural Layer: Reading Data Visualization in the Digital Humanities”
Stephanie Boluk, Vassar Coll., “What Should We Do with Our Games?”
Respondent: Victoria E. Szabo
For abstracts, visit people.duke.edu/~ves4/mla13/.
698. Intonation and Poetic Convention
A special session. Presiding: Natalie E. Gerber, State Univ. of New York, Fredonia; Benjamin Glaser, Skidmore Coll.
Benjamin Glaser, “Libraries of Rhythm”
Thomas Cable, Univ. of Texas, Austin, “When Free Verse Is Not Free Enough”
Steve Willard, Univ. of California, San Diego “Suffused Selves: Intertextual Poetics, Intonation, and Prosody,”
Respondent: Natalie E. Gerber
For abstracts, write to gerber@ fredonia.edu.
700. May 4 Voices: Teaching about the 1970 Kent State Shootings through Oral History and Drama
Back Bay A, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Robert Balla, Univ. of Akron
Speakers: Robert Balla; Kenneth Bindas, Kent State Univ., Kent; Katherine Burke, Theatre of the Oppressed, Inc.; David Hassler, Kent State Univ., Kent
Roundtable discussion of May 4 Voices, an oral history play about the Kent State student shootings of 1970. The session will explore the play’s usefulness in multiple pedagogical settings. Panelists will describe their experiences with May 4 Voices in diverse disciplines and elicit audience responses, along with ideas for incorporating the play into humanities curricula.
701. Trauma, Affect, and Genre in African American Culture
A special session. Presiding: Cherise Smith, Univ. of Texas, Austin
Speakers: Stephanie Batiste, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Sonnet Retman, Univ. of Washington, Seattle; Christina Sharpe, Tufts Univ.; Cherise Smith; Lisa Thompson, Univ. of Austin
In this roundtable, we turn to a range of cultural media, from plays and photographs to novels and musicals, to explore the ways that various African American artists historicize and politicize racial trauma through the innovative use of genre and its affective possibilities.
702. South Asian- izing the Digital Humanities
A special session. Presiding: Rahul Gairola, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
Suchismita Banerjee, Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, “Creating Alternate Voices: Exploring South Asian Cyberfeminism”
Waseem Anwar, Forman Christian Coll., “Digitizing Pakistani Literary Forms; or, E/Merging the Transcultural”
Rashmi Bhatnagar, Univ. of Pittsburgh“Reimagining Aesthetic Education: Digital Humanities in the Global South”
Respondent: Amritjit Singh, Ohio Univ., Athens
For abstracts, write to email@example.com after 1 Dec 2012.
708. Victorian Oral Culture, circa 1861–1901
Public Garden, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Anne Zwierlein, Univ. of Regensburg
John Plunkett, Univ. of Exeter, “Ways with Words: Peepshows, Panoramas, and the Showman- Lecturer”
Janice Schroeder, Carleton Univ., “The Schooled Voice: Sound and Sense in the Reports of the School Inspectorate”
John M. Picker, Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., “Siri Love, circa 1900: Voice Engine Fictions in the Age of Synergy”
For abstracts, visit www.uni-regensburg.de/sprache-literatur-kultur/anglistik/staff/zwierlein/index.html
715. Philip Roth’s Music
Liberty B, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Aimee Lynn Pozorski, Central Connecticut State Univ.
Ira Nadel, Univ. of British Columbia, “Philip Roth and the Music of Seduction”
Aimee Lynn Pozorski, “Nationalism, Lyricism, and Self- Loathing in I Married a Communist and Indignation”
Matthew Shipe, Washington Univ. in St. Louis, “Dream a Little Dream: Music as Counternarrative in Philip Roth’s Late Fiction”
Respondent: B. Jane Statlander- Slote, Miami International Univ. of Art and Design
For abstracts, visit rothsociety.org after 15 Dec.
Program arranged by the Division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century. Presiding: Sara Guyer, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison
Helmut Heinz Müller- Sievers, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, “Making the Gestell Sing: Romantic Music Theory, Virtuoso Performance, and the Aesthetics of Machines”
Jessica Kuskey, Syracuse Univ., “Industrial Anthropomorphism and the Victorian Factory Question”
Monique Allewaert, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, “Antimorphism”
795. Literature and Digital Pedagogies
Fairfax A, Sheraton
A special session. Presiding: Anaïs Saint- Jude, Stanford Univ.
“Teaching Modernism Traditionally and Digitally: What We May Learn from New Digital Tutoring Models by Khan Academy and Udacity,” Petra Dierkes- Thrun, Stanford Univ.
“Digital Resources and the Medieval- Literature Classroom,” Robin Wharton, Georgia Inst. of Tech.
“Toward a New Hybrid Pedagogy: Embodiment and Learning in the Classroom 2.0,” Pete Rorabaugh, Georgia State Univ.; Jesse Stommel, Marylhurst Univ.
For abstracts, visit litilluminations.wordpress.com/ after 1 Dec.
I recently got my hands on a complete set of Marvel Comics’ Dazzler, a comic from the early to mid-80s that featured Alison Blaire, a mutant with the power to transform sound into light. She was the result of an attempted collaboration between Marvel and Casablanca Records. The idea was that rather than publish a comic based on a pre-existing musical act (as they had in 1977 with KISS), Marvel would create a character and Casablanca would, in the words of one of the co-creators, “create someone to take on the persona,” with the potential for a movie tie-in. Casablanca dropped the project before the first issue of the comic, but Marvel re-tooled the character and went ahead with the Dazzler—a talented, yet struggling singer stuck playing at cheesy discos and small clubs while dreaming of wider success.
The last time I wrote about sound in comics, I mentioned how despite (or because of) sound’s transparency, it is an unobstrusive tool in providing the cues needed by readers to provide the closure through which comic literacy functions. The Dazzler series is not a great comic, it is often schmaltzy, repetitive and rife with errors, and just when it started to fulfill a bit of its promise, its creative team and the comic’s direction were changed and it was canceled soon after, but despite this, it is the perfect subject for looking at the representation of sound in comics. Dazzler’s power literally shines a light on how pervasive imagined sound is in this visual/textual form. It also makes room for even more sounds to be woven into the title’s narrative. Since Alison Blaire is an aspiring singer the most prevalent sound present in this title—less common in other popular super heroes titles—is music. Dan Fingeroth and Jacob Springer (who wrote the majority of Dazzler’s brief run) had many opportunities to depict a visual representation of singing.
As a singer, Dazzler is a maker of sounds in addition to a user of the sound already present throughout the medium. As a result, in addition to the visual representation of sound through Dazzler’s glowing light show, the writers were in a position of having to use text to describe the quality of sound more often than usual for their genre. As Tom DeFalco (a co-creator and sometimes writer on the series) said in a 1980 interview with Comics Feature, “I have to put in a lot of sounds in the captions and that I hope that kids who very rarely read captions will read these so they’ll know where the sound is coming from. But the good thing about sound is that you are always surrounded by sound.” DeFalco’s answer illustrates the contradiction at the heart of comic sound—it may be ever-present, but because of this is taken for granted to such a degree that he worries that its source will not be self-evident on the comics page. He adds that one way around this, because of Dazzler‘s focus on music, is through descriptions of the audience’s reactions to it—how it makes them feel is a way to clue the readers into the source and quality of sound present in the panels.
It is the affective relationship to sound that marks Dazzler as very different from other superhero comics. All the super-villain battles and fear of the revelation of her mutant powers are merely the narrative obstacles to her primary goal and obsession—singing. In order for that work, the emotions that emerge from her performance (both for Alison and those listening) needs to be evoked (something that the comics unevenly succeeds at). The colorful lights that are often part of a stage show are, in her case, a direct result of her relationship to not only hearing/absorbing sound, but making sound. She repeatedly explains that rhythmic nature of popular music makes her powers easier to use, because she can feel its pulse. For Alison Blaire, hearing, making and using sounds are conflated by means of the visual and textual, allowing the reader to see what he cannot hear or feel. In other words, Dazzler’s conceit is most successful when it evokes an empathic connection between the reader and the imagined sounds.
The feeling around sound can also be evoked through its absence. A common practice in mainstream superhero comics is the guest appearance by a popular hero in a new or poorly-selling comic in order to boost sales, and Dazzler seemed to have cameo by some better known character almost every issue. This practice allowed for writers and artists to depict what had for decades been undepictable. When Dazzler teams up with Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans (a Fantastic Four character from back in the Kirby days) he is finally allowed an opportunity to use his greatest and most feared power, his voice. Black Bolt is forever silent. His voice is so powerful a weapon that even his whisper can inadvertently kill all those around him. Thus, despite being an iconic Silver Age character, the voice of Black Bolt is one that can never be “heard” by comic readers. His silence is part of his identity and grants him a tragic and noble-bearing. As such, when he is teamed up with Dazzler, her power becomes the perfect vehicle for representing the unrepresentable sound—Dazzler absorbs the sound of his voice to emit the energy needed to defeat the super-villain. In having the characters work together, the writer was able to use one character’s power to finally represent the other’s. In this moment there is a sense of relief and emotional release, along with a sense of peril that bound to Black Bolt’s voice gives the unheard sound resonance.
As the title continued (and after its cancellation, when Dazzler became a member of the X-Men), Alison Blaire’s powers developed in different ways, the most fascinating was the development of her hearing. While early in the character’s career she was dependent on passive hearing, often carrying a portable radio with her in order to insure she had sufficient sound with which to use her light powers, later she developed acute active listening skills. As this aspect of her power developed, it became clear that it was not necessarily the force of sounds themselves that determined the extent of her power (though clearly loud sounds could be more easily transformed into more powerful forms of light, like ultra-focused lasers), but her attentive listening. The more attention she could pay to sounds and could discern even faint sounds, the more she could absorb and transform—later she is even able to use the sounds of digging insects and worms to save herself when she is accidentally buried alive.
By the end of her original series, Dazzler‘s new writing team had her mostly abandon her musical ambitions and take the more common (and dare I say, more boring) comic book route of getting a costume and joining a team of liked-minded super-beings. Because of this, the character’s special relationship to sound is lost in the shuffle of convoluted continuities and cosmic crises present in the various X-titles. There is less time and attention paid to song and sound as power and its emotional weight. The abandonment of her career goals also abandons the opportunity to explore a unique representation of sound and identity in a medium where identity is writ large. However, if there is a take-away from the strange, mostly failed, collaborative experiment between comics company and records company, it is that like Alison Blaire, if the comics reader “listens” carefully to the sounds present in the text and pictures there is a potential for a lot more depth and appreciation of how sound’s depiction is crucial to comics’ formal success.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
In comics theorist Scott McCloud‘s seminal work Understanding Comics (1993), there comes a point following his convoluted description of Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” where he asks the reader, “Do you hear what I’m saying?” In the next panel he adds, “If you do, have your ears check because no one said a word.” The joke is, of course, that while his comic doppelganger is depicted as talking through the use of word balloons, no words are being spoken. We are reading, not hearing. And yet, sound (or rather, its representation) remains a crucial part of reading and enjoying comic books.
Magritte was trying to get us to think about the treachery of visual representation, while McCloud points us of the treachery of aural representation. A stylized “SPLAT!” is certainly not a sound, but our instinctual understanding of sound helps us to interpret what is otherwise a silent medium in ways beyond the mere the descriptive effect of a sound’s depiction. The way comics use sound can teach us about the function of sound in understanding the visual and textual. As McCloud asserts, comics depend on the reader to create closure between parts of an imagined whole in order for disparate panels to make sense. While it second-nature for the comic reader to interpret the depiction of sound in comics, the closure enacted to make stylized textual elements into “a sound” is a central way that this is enacted.
The most famous use of comic sound effect words is probably from the old 1960s Batman TV series—where the “SOCK!” and “BONG!” of superhero and sidekick reinforced the campy aesthetic of the program. It is telling that the Batman-theme (and the fight scenes in general) uses horn flares to emphasize those “POW!” and “BIFF!” moments. The suggestion is that the ostentatious representations of sound that these textual flare sound effect words provide are an empty signifier. There is no sound behind that sound. The weak-sounding slaps and smacks of knuckles on flesh would never suffice for the larger than life world of comic superheroes, and the more out-there comics get the more difficult it is to trace a relationship between the textual/visual representation and any sound in the real world. There is no point of comparison by which to understand the “SHREEEEEE!” of a launching “zirrer” in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, but only the vague evocation of some loud shrill noise.
And yet, comic readers not only understand these representations as sound, but there are also a variety of visual clues given that help the reader interpret some quality of those sounds. The most ubiquitous example of sound in comics is, of course, the word balloon—so ubiquitous in fact that it is easy to take for granted the fact that comics have their own conventions for handling and describing sound without recourse to adjectives. The irony is that the shape and texture of word balloons (just like the shape and texture of sound effect words like “BOOM!”) that help to convey the quality of sound become nearly invisible to the reader. Just as any literate person sees a word they know and interprets it for what it is meant to represent and not a collection of individual letters, the dripping icicle-like shape of a word balloon is read as a cold tone or the sharp points of the balloon are read as loud and abrupt.
In her essay “The Comic Book’s Soundtrack” from The Language of Comics (2001), Catherine Khordoc provides a very good overview of the use of sound in comics using the example of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix to provide examples of the various ways word balloons and the implanting of onomatopoeic words directly into the panel image itself are used to represent sounds in comic books. Yet, the function of the representation of sound in comic runs even deeper than simply translating the quality of sound itself; it also serves to help establish timeframes for panels (or sets of panels) and functions in establishing the closure the reader performs in making sense of both individual panels and their context within a sequence of panels. Discrete sounds—whether it’s the “FWOOSH!” of the Human Torch flaming on or long-winded pseudo-scientific explanation of the Negative Zone by Mr. Fantastic—require the passage of time to be intelligible. In order for sounds to be differentiated, they must have some form of beginning, middle and end (or in the parlance of synthesized sound, “attack, decay, sustain, release”). This means that in comics, a medium where space and time merge, representations of sound are crucial to making sense of action, in particular, to the passage of time within a singular panel—for while time can be shown to pass between two or more panels through the process of closure (implicitly understanding the movement or occurrence not depicted between panels that makes them sequential), a singular panel is not necessarily a discrete moment, as an entire conversation can occur within it, requiring readers to perform closure even within the scope of a single panel.
For example, in the second panel below, despite the static image, the passage of time suggested by the conversation about Spider-man’s wounds and payment leads the reader to make sense of the sequence between it and the panel that follows. It is the reader’s understanding that it takes time to talk and listen out loud that helps make the time of the panel apparent.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the centrality of sound, at least to the superhero comic genre, was Marvel’s decision to include a synopsis and explanation of the action at the end of each issue of the “‘Nuff Said,” “silent” month of comics back in 2001—wherein there was no dialogue or captions.
There is still a lot to consider when it comes to sound in comics—not just the rhetoric of sound or sound as a signifier of time, but sound as identity. Representations of sound in comics can serve as a form of character signature, and I do not mean only famous lines like Superman’s “Up, up and away!” (which really emerged from Superman radio plays), but iconic sounds such as Spider-man’s web-shooters going “THWIPP!” or Wolverine’s claws, “SNIKT!” that over time have come to be more than just descriptive sound-words, but signifiers that are unique for the characters themselves. (See TV Trope’s page on signature sound effects)
In the end, this brief overview will hopefully serve as a starting point in generating more thoughts on not only how our familiarity with sound informs our reading and interpreting of comics, but how this (admittedly) very general idea can be applied to other ostensibly silent and primarily visual media. The use of sound in comics is a perfect example of how the transparency of sound can make it presence and function easy to overlook. Furthermore, the way in which it is used to orient the reader and help provide closure between and within panels, and identify characters clues us in to the importance of its role and the importance of considering where and how else it might function. I, for one, am going to keep thinking on it and looking for examples of in comics and hope that others join their thoughts to the discussion. Until then, as Stan Lee would “say,” Excelsior!