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Look Away and Listen: The Audiovisual Litany in Philosophy

This is an excerpt from a paper I delivered at the 2017 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

“Compressed and rarefied air particles of sound waves” from Popular Science Monthly, Volume 13. In the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

According to sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past, many philosophers practice an “audiovisual litany,” which is a conceptual gesture that favorably opposes sound and sonic phenomena to a supposedly occularcentric status quo. He states, “the audiovisual litany…idealizes hearing (and, by extension, speech) as manifesting a kind of pure interiority. It alternately denigrates and elevates vision: as a fallen sense, vision takes us out of the world. But it also bathes us in the clear light of reason” (15).  In other words, Western culture is occularcentric, but the gaze is bad, so luckily sound and listening fix all that’s bad about it. It can seem like the audiovisual litany is everywhere these days: from Adriana Cavarero’s politics of vocal resonance, to Karen Barad’s diffraction, to, well, a ton of Deleuze-inspired scholarship from thinkers as diverse as Elizabeth Grosz and Steve Goodman, philosophers use some variation on the idea of acoustic resonance (as in, oscillatory patterns of variable pressure that interact via phase relationships) to mark their departure from European philosophy’s traditional models of abstraction, which are visual and verbal, and to overcome the skeptical melancholy that results from them. The field of philosophy seems to argue that we need to replace traditional models of philosophical abstraction, which are usually based on words or images, with sound-based models, but this argument reproduces hegemonic ideas about sight and sound.

For Sterne, the audiovisual litany is traditionally part of the “metaphysics of presence” that we get from Plato and Christianity: sound and speech offer the fullness and immediacy that vision and words deny. However, contemporary versions of the litany appeal to a different metaphysics. For example, Cavarero in For More Than One Voice argues that the privileging of vision over sound is the foundation of the metaphysics of presence. “The visual metaphor,” she argues, “is not simply an illustration; rather, it constitutes the entire metaphysical system” (38). The problem with this videocentric metaphysics is that it “legitimates the reduction of whatever is seen to an object” (Cavarero 176) and it cannot “anticipate” or “confirm the uniqueness” of each individual (4). In other words, it objectifies and abstracts, and that’s bad. If vision is the foundation of the metaphysics of presence, one way to fix its problems is to replace the foundation with something else. Cavarero thinks vocal resonance avoids the objectifying and abstracting tendencies that images and text supposedly lend to philosophy.

Similarly, in the same way that the traditional audiovisual litany “assume[s] that sound draws us into the world while vision separates us from it” (Sterne 18), Barad’s argument for agential realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway assumes that diffraction draws theorists into actual contact with matter while “reflection still holds the world at a distance” (87). Agential realism looks is the view that even the most basic units of reality, like the basic particles of matter, exercise agency as they interact to form more complex units; diffraction is Barad’s theory about how these particles interact. This litany of distance-versus-relationality and external objectivity versus immersive materiality structures Barad’s counterpoint between reflection and diffraction. For example, she contrasts traditional investment in reflective surfaces—“the belief that words, concepts, ideas, and the like accurately reflect or mirror the things to which they refer-makes a finely polished surface of this whole affair” (86)–with diffractive interiorities, which get down to “the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within and as part of the world” (37). But how do we know Barad is appealing to an audiovisual litany? We know because her fundamental concept–diffraction–describes the behavior of waveforms as they encounter other things, and 21st century Western scientists and music scholars think sound is a waveform. When two or more waves interact, they produce “alternating pattern[s] of wave intensity” or “increasing and decreasing intensities” (Barad 77), like ripples in water or alternating light frequencies.

“diffracted hydrogen” by Flickr user candace, CC BY 2.0

Barad appeals to notions of consonance and dissonance to explain how these patterns interact. For example, when diffracting light waves around a razor blade, “bright spots appear in places where the waves enhance one another-that is, where there is ‘constructive interfer­ence’-and dark spots appear where the waves cancel one another-that is, where there is ‘destructive interference’” (Barad 77). This “constructive” and “destructive” interference is like audio amplification and masking: when frequencies are perfectly in sync (peaks align with peaks, valleys with valleys), they amplify; when frequencies are perfectly out of sync (peaks align with valleys), they cancel each other out (this is how noise-cancelling headphones work). Constructive interference is consonance: the synced patterns amplify one another; destructive interference is dissonance: the out-of-sync patterns mask each other. Both types of interference are varieties of resonance, a rational or irrational phase relationship among frequencies. Rational phase relationships are ones where the shorter phases or periods of higher frequencies are evenly divisible into the longer phases/periods; irrational phase relationships happen when the shorter phases can’t be evenly divided into the longer wavelengths. Abstracting from waveforms to philosophical analysis, Barad often uses resonance as a metaphor to translate wave behavior into materialist philosophical methods. However, even though most of Barad’s examples throughout Meeting the Universe Halfway are visual, she’s describing what scientists call acoustic relationships.

For example, Barad argues that “diffractively read[ing]” philosophical texts means processing “insights through one another for the patterns of resonance and dissonance they coproduce” (195; emphasis mine). Similarly, she advises her readers to tune into the “dissonant and harmonic resonances” (43) that emerge when they try “diffract­ing these insights [from an early chapter in her book] through the grating of the entire set of book chapters” (30). As patterns of higher and lower intensity that interact via ir/rational phase relationships, diffraction patterns are a type of acoustic resonance. Appealing to acoustics against representationalism, Barad practices a version of the audiovisual litany. And she’s not the only new materialist to do so—Jane Bennett’s concept of vibration and Elizabeth Grosz’s notion of “music” also ontologize a similar idea of resonance and claim it overcomes the distancing and skeptical melancholy produced by traditional methods of philosophical abstraction.

“Painter” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are also instances of the audiovisual litany in phenomenology. For example, Alia Al-Saji develops in the article A Phenomenology of Critical-Ethical Vision” a notion of “critical-ethical vision” against “objectifying vision,” and, via a reading of Merleau-Ponty, grounds the former, better notion of sight (and thought) in his analogy between painting and listening. According to Al-Saji, “objectifying vision” is the model of sight that has dominated much of European philosophy since the Enlightenment. “Objectifying vision” takes seeing as “merely a matter of re-cognition, the objectivation and categorization of the visible into clear-cut solids, into objects with definite contours and uses” (375). Because it operates in a two-dimensional metaphysical plane it can only see in binary terms (same/other): “Objectifying vision is thus reductive of lateral difference as relationality” (390). According to Al-Saji, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of painting develops an account of vision that is “non-objectifying” (388) and relational. We cannot see paintings as already-constituted objects, but as visualizations, the emergence of vision from a particular set of conditions. Such seeing allows us “to glimpse the intercorporeal, social and historical institution of my own vision, to remember my affective dependence on an alterity whose invisibility my [objectifying] vision takes for granted” (Al-Saji 391). Al-Saji turns to sonic language to describe such relational seeing: “more than mere looking, this is seeing that listens (391; emphasis mine).

This Merleau-Pontian vision not only departs from traditional European Enlightenment accounts of vision, it gestures toward traditional European accounts of hearing. Similarly, Fred Evans, in The Multivoiced Body uses voice as a metaphor for the Deleuzo-Guattarian metaphysics that he calls “chaosmos” or “composed chaos” (86); he then contrasts chaosmos to “homophonic” (67) Enlightenment metaphysics. According to Evans, if “‘voices,’ not individuals, the State, or social structures, are the primary participants in society” (256), then  “reciprocity” and “mutual intersection” (59) appear as fundamental social values (rather than, say, autonomy). This analysis exemplifies what is at the crux of the audiovisual litany: voices put us back in touch with what European modernity and postmodernity abstract away.

“Image from page 401 of “Surgical anatomy : a treatise on human anatomy in its application to the practice of medicine and surgery” (1901)” by Flickr user Internet Archive Book Images

The audiovisual litany is hot right now: as I’ve just shown, it’s commonly marshaled in the various attempts to move past or go beyond stale old Western modernist and postmodernist philosophy, with all their anthropocentrism and correlationism and classical liberalism. To play with Marie Thompson’s words a bit, just as there is an “ontological turn in sound studies,” there’s a “sound turn in ontological studies.” But why? What does sound DO for this specific philosophical project? And what kind of sound are we appealing to anyway?

The audiovisual litany naturalizes hegemonic concepts of sound and sight and uses these as metaphors for philosophical positions. This lets philosophical assumptions pass by unnoticed because they appear as “natural” features of various sensory modalities. Though he doesn’t use this term, Sterne’s analysis implies that the audiovisual litany is what Mary Beth Mader calls a sleight. “Sleights” are, according to Mader in Sleights of Reason,“conceptual collaborations that function as switches or ruses important to the continuing centrality and pertinence of the social category of a political system like “sex” (3). Sleights, in other words, are conceptual slippages that render underlying hegemonic structures like cisheteropatriarchy coherent. More specifically, sleights are “conceptual jacquemarts” (Mader 5). Jacquemarts are effectively the Milli Vanilli of clocks: sounds appear to come from one overtly visible, aesthetically appealing source action (figures ringing a bell) but they actually come from a hidden, less aesthetically appealing source action (hammers hitting gongs). The clock is constructed in a way to “misdirect or misindicate” (Mader 8) both who is making the sound and how they are making it. A sound exists, but its source is misattributed. This is exactly what happens in the uses of the audiovisual litany I discuss above: philosophers misdirect or misindicate the source of the distinction they use the audiovisual litany to mark. The litany doesn’t track the difference between sensory media or perceptual faculties, but between two different methods of abstraction.

Screenshot from Milli Vanilli’s video “Don’t Forget My Number”

This slippage between perceptual medium and philosophical method facilitates the continued centrality of Philosophy-capital-P: philosophy appears to reform its methods and fix its problems, while actually re-investing in its traditional boundaries, values, and commitments. For example, both new materialists and sound studies scholars have been widely critiqued for actively ignoring work on sound and resonance in black studies (e.g., by Zakiyyah Jackson, Diana Leong, Maire Thompson). As Zakiyyah Jackson argues in Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement “Beyond the Human,” new materialism’s “gestures toward the ‘post’ or the ‘beyond’ effectively ignore praxes of humanity and critiques produced by black people” (215), and in so doing ironically reinstitute the very thing new materialism claims to supercede. Stratifying theory into “new” and not-new, new materialist “appeals to move ‘beyond’…may actually reintroduce the Eurocentric transcendentalism this movement purports to disrupt” (Jackson 215) by exclusively focusing on European philosophers’ accounts of sound and sight. Similarly, these uses of the litany often appeal only to other philosophers’ accounts of sound or music, not actual works or practices or performances. They don’t even attend to the sonic dimensions of literary texts, a method that scholars such as Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Alexander Weheliye develop in their work. Philosophers use the audiovisual litany to disguise philosophy’s ugly politics—white supremacy and Eurocentrism—behind an outwardly pleasing conceptual gesture: the turn from sight or text to sound. With this variation of the audiovisual litany, Philosophy appears to cross beyond its conventional boundaries while actually doubling-down on them.

Featured image: “soundwaves” from Flickr user istolethetv

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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From “listening” to “filling in”: where “La Soeur Écoute” Teaches Us to Listen-Emmanuelle Sontag
The Listening Body in Death –Denise Gill
Re-orienting Sound Studies’ Aural Fixation: Christine Sun Kim’s “Subjective Loudness”-Sarah Mayberry Scott

Chicana Soundscapes: Introduction

Feminista Music Scholarship understands music production and listening as a collective site of engagement that sometimes produces and sometimes challenges social structures of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation.  It is a method and practice that pushes on narrative frameworks that naturalize the absence of women of color and Chicanx subjects in music scholarship.  It is always about imagining and practicing life, as the old-saying/ dicho goes says, to the beat of a different drum, to an alternative, more just reality and experience of time, built on the knowledge of buen vivir or sumak kawsay (a kichwe concept and practice that understands the good life cannot be attained without living right with others in convivencia, in mutual respect of marginalized communities, knowledges, cyclical non-linear time, and of La Pachama/mother earth, one that aligns with knowledge practices of many indigenous communities across Las Americas).

This Chicana Soundscapes/Feminista Music Scholarship Forum is inspired by the “Sounds Like Home: Mapping Chicana Mexicana/Indigena Epistemologies in Sonic Spaces” presented at the annual American Studies Association (ASA) Annual Conference, Denver 2017. Thanks to the roundtable organizers Yessica Garcia Hernandez and Iris Viveros Avendaño for inviting me to chair the panel and to ASA Sound Caucus committee for sponsoring the panel and putting a spotlight on this much-needed research. Many have worked tirelessly for over 25 years to make space at the ASA for such a panel–one that is focused on feminista music scholarship, robustly composed of emerging feminista scholars from different localities. It is truly a collective endeavor. That is took this long says much about the way such knowledge has been valued.  That is finally happened says much about what’s coming next!

The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Rios-Hernandez, Susana Sepulveda, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño, understands music in its local, translocal and transnational context, and insists upon open new scholarly imaginaries. Not only does each scholar’s research point to the exciting present and future of music studies, it points to the work of feminista scholars and music practicioners who’ve pushed the frames of music studies, from inside and outside of ethnomusicology and musicology, scholars such as: Deborah Wong, Deborah Vargas, Sherrie Tucker, our own mentor Angela Davis, Maureen Mahon, Daphne Brooks, Andreana Clay, Martha Gonzalez, and others.  Feminista scholars like Inés Casillas, Jennifer Stoever, Roshanak Kheshti, Monica De La Torre, and others, have made way for for feminista music studies in Sound Studies. And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Susan McClary shocked the music studies world by insisting that gender mattered in music analysis.  We still face constant pushback on that assertion, in particular subfields, especially now. Current times require us to bridge intersectional, decolonial, and gender analysis.  Music, and our relationship to it, has much to reveal about how power operates within a context of inequality.   And it will teach us how to get through this moment.

(Re)Sounding Misery and Resistance: Chicana Feminist Listening Practices in Radio, Theatre, and Television with Monica De La Torre, Marci McMahon, Sara V. Hinojos and D. Inés Casillas #soundstudiesday #thisistheasa

For the last 13 years my research for Chicanxfuturism manuscript has engaged the following question: What practices compose Feminista Music Scholarship? As a practitioner in dialogue with scholars and practitioners, I identify Feminista Music Scholarship as:

  • a fluid practice of collective listening and producing music attentive to power relations
  • an examination of power-flows through music via epistemologies birthed from feminist of color and indigenista theorizing and practice
  • approaching all genres
  • troubling the notion of home
  • responding to community displacement & social alienation
  • networked (through digital archive, social media, etc…; collaborative and collective; and social justice oriented
  • recognizing the reciprocal exchange of knowledge and labor between community and scholarly collaborations
  • a collective endeavor
  • ever-transforming

Feminista Music Scholarship is what the participants of this forum are doing (among their many important interventions)!

Martha Gonzalez, Scholar and Quetzal vocalist. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke. This photo was taken during a Quetzal concert at the first community get-together of the Eastside Cafe (May 17, 2002) in the Mazatlan Ballroom in El Sereno (Los Angeles).

Indeed, Feminist Music Scholarship disrupts what Daphne Brooks describes in “The Write to Rock: Racial Mythologies, Feminist Theory, and the Pleasures of Rock Music Criticism” as “the imagined subaltern sphere of independent rock culture (dubbed “indie-rock”) [that] depends on a narrow discourse of shared knowledge that largely marginalizes (if not altogether erases) the presence of women and particularly women of color in alternative music culture” (61).  The conceptualization and development of recent pop music exhibits, scholarship by emerging scholars, and community music dialogues, decidedly influenced by Feminista Music Scholarship is one of many possible answers to Brooks’s serious question, “How do we break outside of these tightly policed spheres?”  The scholars/music practitioners in this issue respond to the burning question, “how does Chicana feminist music criticism break out of these spheres and serve as a home for new methods for writing about punk, banda, and new wave, son jarocho and participatory community music production?”

During the ASA roundtable, Alarcón, Garcia Hernandez, Rios-Hernandez, Sepulveda, and Viveros Avendaño presented six-minute flash presentations and then opened the floor to a discussion that is wide-ranging yet grounded in the material practices of sound, music, feminism, and home. They continue that important discussion there. More than ever we need panels, forums, dissertations, articles and other forms scholarship that spotlight the ways vulnerable populations have found ways to disrupt systemic oppression through their raucous listening, producing and community practices.  This permits us to remember that this fight is not over, that we are deep in it and we have much strategy to share.

Rock on forum readers, rock on!

Michelle Habell-Pallán, associate professor of performance culture of the Americas in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, and adjunct associate professor in the School of Music and Department of Communication, at the University of Washington (UW), is currently the Director of the Certificate for Public Scholarship. For her fifteen years plus of community engagement and the arts, she recently received the Barclay Simpson Prize for Scholarship in Public, which recognizes her efforts to foster the humanities as a public good. Her research examines music, performance, and theater as communal forms of expression that archive alternative histories used to imagine new futures. In tandem, her research also reflects on the way developing media platforms compel new methods of cultural expression, research, archiving and delivery. Her most current research considers dialogues between feminista movements and hip hop feminista musics in Ecuador and its relationship to indigenous social movements rooted in Andean concepts of Sumak Kawsai (Right-living). She is the Co-Director of the UW Honors Quito, Ecuador Study Abroad Program.  

Habell-Pallán authored Loca Motion: The Travels of Chicana/Latina Popular Culture (NYU Press). Her most recent book is the bilingual American Sabor: Latinos and Latinas in US Popular Music: Latinos y Latinas en La Música Popular Estadounidense co-authored with Marisol Berrios-Miranda and Shannon Dudley, published by University of Washington Press (Autumn January 2017).   Her single-authored book Chicanxfuturism: Punk’s Beat Migration and the Sounds of Buen Vivir is in-progress.

Habell-Pallán guest-curated the award-winning bilingual traveling exhibit American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music hosted by Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).  As a digital feminista she transforms digital humanities, through community engagement, as co-director of University of Washington Libraries Women Who Rock (WWR): Making Scenes, Building Communities Oral History Archive.  

A former UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Habell-Pallán is recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Research Award, Woodrow Wilson Foundation Research Award, UW Royal Research Fund Award, and UW Simpson Center Digital Commons Faculty Fellowship (underwritten by the Mellon Foundation).  

Habell-Pallán makes community &  music with the Seattle Fandango Project, and is a member of the Fembot Collective|Gender, New Media & Technology. She collaborates with a range of local community partners to direct the Women Who Rock: Making Scenes, Building Communities Collective, whose free and family-friendly Seattle unConference/Encuentro takes place annually.

 


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

If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag– Marlen Ríos-Hernández

Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms–Monica De La Torre

SO! Reads: Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda–Wanda Alarcon

 

SO! Amplifies: Indie Preserves

soamp

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

In July 2016, we, Scott Carlson and Norie Guthrie, ­­began the Indie Preserves blog, but this is actually not the best place to start. About six months earlier, Scott became concerned about the preservation skills of Indie and DIY music label owners and musicians. The thought of someone’s creative output disappearing in a flash from a hard drive sent shivers down his spine. After speaking with one label owner who was nervous about losing his stuff, we thought it might behoove us to see if others had the same fears.

“Sometimes [I’m] scared of how easy it would be to lose everything,” [Burger Records’s] Sean Bohrman told us. “All it would take is a fire, or a flood, or for someone to come in and take our equipment, and it’d be years of work lost.”

We created a survey to ascertain the types of materials and files that Indie and DIY labels save, and how they would gauge their knowledge of physical and digital preservation. Of the 500 labels contacted, we received responses from 168. Of that group, 60% were “somewhat to very concerned” about preserving their stuff.

There were two motivations for Indie Preserves, then. Firstly, we wanted to help respondents who wanted to learn preservation techniques (58% for digital and 63% physical). Secondly, a library colleague suggested that we present our findings at Austin’s annual SXSW festival. To make it there, we needed an online presence. Thus, our blog was born.

The main subjects of our blog fall in three categories: physical preservation, digital preservation, and interviews. Our physical preservation posts cover what items to save, what archival supplies to buy, how to organize your papers, where to store them, and items to avoid (like metal paper clips). Digital preservation, on the other hand, takes a bit more work. We wrote posts about embedding metadata in photographs, PDFs, and audio; the 3-2-1 rule; and issues to consider when using cloud storage. As for our interviews, we talked with archivists on the front lines curating music archives at their institution, DIY archivist and punk legend Ian MacKaye, and other preservation professionals like Jessica Thompson, Mastering/Restoration Engineer and Archival Specialist at Coast Mastering.

Essentially, Indie Preserves exists to provide advice and a chuckle while hammering home the reasons why our audience should listen. Early on, it was clear that we had caught the attention of library and archives professionals, but we were concerned that we had not connected with the labels.  We hoped that presenting at SXSW would help.

Panel

Indie Preserves Panel at SXSW 2016, All images supplied by authors

Our panel consisted of Jessica Thompson, Sean Bohrman of Burger Records, and us. The presentation went well, though our audience was a bit light. We did, however, manage to connect with audience members and fielded several questions afterwards.

Moving forward, we are putting together a book proposal that will explore music preservation from a variety of angles. Proposed contributions currently range from the actual restoration and preservation of recorded sound to citizen archivist projects to case studies about the preservation of music culture and “scenes” from particular cities. Along with our contributors, we will discuss music preservation in institutions, our Indie Preserves project, and the ways researchers use popular music archives.

Norie Guthrie is an Archivist and Special Collections Librarian with the Woodson Research Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library. She has been building the Houston Folk Music Archive at Fondren Library. 

Scott Carlson is the Metadata Coordinator at Rice University’s Fondren Library. An active member of the independent record label community, he runs Frodis Records, an independent reissue label.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Amplifies: Shizu Saldamando’s OUROBOROS–J.L. Stoever

SO! Amplifies: Feminatronic

SO! Amplifies: Carleton Gholz and the Detroit Sound Conservancy–Carleton Gholz

SO! Amplifies: Josh Shepperd on the Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress (from FlowTV)

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