Archive | Conferences RSS for this section

The Sound of Feminist Snap, or Why I Interrupted the 2018 SEM Business Meeting

I begin this essay with an apology, addressed to the Society for Ethnomusicology President Gregory Barz:

I am sorry that I interrupted your opening remarks at least year’s SEM Business meeting.  In the moment that I chose to make my intervention, I underestimated the pain that it has clearly caused you. Furthermore, I have come to realize that it was unskillful of me to locate my frustration and anger with you as an individual.  The affective release of my voice in that moment could have been better directed towards positive change in a time of great need for many of us. I fully intend to work towards doing better in the months to come, urging anyone who occupies the office of President of this organization to use the power and standing inherent in this position office to take direct steps to address the harms many of its members are experiencing.

Because my intervention arose so quickly and unpredictably—for readers outside of the Society for Ethnomusicology who may not know, I stood up and yelled “You’re a hypocrite!” then left the meeting—it seems worthwhile to explore my actions in a more thoughtful space of written discourse. I want to clarify that my sonic interruption was not premeditated; as I explain below, it arose out of a deep anger and longing for justice. As SEM 2019 convenes in November in Bloomington, Indiana on November 7th, I hope that my disruptive event can be better understood as a call to collective inquiry into the structural factors that constrain our Society from functioning in a healthy way.

Indeed, I am already encouraged by steps that have been taken since the meeting—by President Barz and others—to address some of these concerns. And in the aftermath of this intervention, I have been heartened by the positive and supportive responses I have received from friends and colleagues. Although I had to leave the room in that moment, something meaningful remained just outside. 

***

Some backstory: This was the first time I had attended a business meeting; at previous conferences, they had always seemed like a formality that did not concern me. Serving on the Committee for Academic Labor, the Ethics Committee, and as Chair of the Improvisation Section, however, helped me to understand the importance of these formal structures and rituals for the health of our Society.   I attended in 2018, therefore, with a sense of curiosity and a longing for positive change, particularly in regard to some of the work coming out of the committees on which I was serving. This longing also arose from a sense of frustration at the lack of receptivity to new ideas by Board leadership—as experienced through a pattern of poor communication around implementation of this work between committees and Board—as well as what I perceived to be a lack of transparency and accountability among Board leadership.

Much of this frustration stemmed from the Board’s failure to implement a minor procedural proposal put forward by the Ethics committee nearly two years prior: that the committee be restructured to be elected rather than appointed. After the first deadline to put the amendment to the full membership passed without comment from the Board, we had to expend a great deal of energy even to receive acknowledgement that our proposals had been received. By the time the committee met again, we had been through over a year of exhausting back-and-forth by email with nothing actually getting done.

Then, in the weeks leading up to the 2018 meeting, a member publicly came forward about experiences of sexual abuse by a now-deceased ethnomusicologist who had served as a senior member of SEM during his lifetime. As a member of the Ethics Committee, I witnessed the email exchange in which her requests for space to address this at the 2018 meeting were first accommodated, then revoked at the last minute; she was finally allowed space to speak in a confusing, unmoderated, ad-hoc session to which the Board assented only after the conference was already underway.

So, when President Barz chose to begin his opening remarks with a paean to civility, lamenting how conflict over social media was causing us to lose our ability to engage in healthy discourse as a unified Society, I became concerned. Many in the audience were aware that both the sexual assault allegation and another credible allegation of ethical misconduct by SEM leadership had been circulating on Facebook in previous months. I heard President Barz’s remarks as a use of his prominent position in SEM to categorize these complaints as “noise.” As Mark Brantner points out in his thoughtful critique of John Stewart’s 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity,” the idea that sanity operates through “indoor voices” is a deeply ingrained assumption for many. 

But in the wake of recent upheavals in the status quo, catalyzed by movements like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, many hear these “indoor voices” as signifiers of an oppressive status quo. Others have written about the problems inherent in invoking civility in the face of dissent: In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Vann Newkirk argues that in many cases, “the demands for civility function primarily to stifle the frustrations of those currently facing real harm” (2018). In Vox, Julia Azari points out that “Civility is not an end on its own if the practices and beliefs it upholds are unjust” (2018). In these cases, calls for civility came in response to calls by those whose voices are met with silence by the prevailing order.

And allow me to state in no uncertain terms: many of us in the field are currently facing real harm. Since earning my doctorate in Ethnomusicology just over a year ago, I spent eight months without health insurance and now qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  I’ve strongly considered leaving the Society many times over the past year. 

“snapped stick” by Flickr user masterbutler (CC BY 2.0)

I’m also aware that my personal experience is only the tip of the iceberg: so many peers and colleagues have left the Society altogether because of sexual harassment, abuse of power by senior members or advisors, and economic precarity, experienced alone or in horrific combination. These harms are also compounded for my peers who do not share my positionality as a heterosexual, cisgender, white-presenting man with a U.S. passport and a bourgeois class background.

As President Barz continued to speak, my concern—which had lodged itself as a feeling of discontent somewhere in my stomach area—began to rise into my chest as anger, particularly when President Barz began to invoke his authority as a champion of democratic practice within the Society to justify his call to civility. If he truly believed in consensus-building and democracy, I thought, certainly he wouldn’t have opposed an effort to increase democratic accountability on the Ethics Committee. This contradiction generated my experience of what woman of color feminist Sara Ahmed calls “feminist snap” in 2017’s Living a Feminist Life.  She described “feminist snap” like this in a May 2017 blogpost:

It is only when you seem to lose it, when you shout, swear, spill, that you have their attention. And then you become a spectacle. And what you brought out means you have to get out.  When we think of such moments of snap, those moments when you can’t take it anymore, when you just can’t take it anymore, we are thinking about worlds; how worlds are organised to enable some to breathe, how they leave less room for others. You have to leave because there is nothing left; when there is nothing left.

In other words, I noticed that I seemed to be losing it. In that moment, I drew on my background as an improvising musician to decide how to relate to this intense energy. After exchanging incredulous glances with two colleagues sitting nearby, I decided that I couldn’t sit quietly and let my toxic feeling fester throughout the meeting—I needed to leave, but I didn’t want to leave without registering to people in the room why I had to leave, and there was no space in the official meeting to do so. At the same time, I was aware of the risks inherent in this strategy—especially because I have witnessed how the sound of my voice—a man’s—snapping like this can itself be a trauma trigger for anyone who has been shouted down in a meeting, or otherwise. Thus, the material nature of the spectacle here was different from that described by Ahmed in that it carried with it a timbre of patriarchal violence. Oddly enough, the worlds that I felt were being organized to make it difficult to breathe still afforded me the air for this particular form of breathed expression: a fiery shout. And that sound brought unintended consequences.

“break” by Flickr user David Lenker (CC BY 2.0)

I had wanted there to be no doubt that my departure was a response to President Barz’s remarks, but the power arrangement in the room meant that it would have been difficult to offer a lengthy articulation of my reasoning, given that any utterance would have been received as disruptive and that I did not have access to sound amplification in the large room. (I am reminded here of R. Murray Schafer’s point in The Soundscape : “A man with a loudspeaker is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (1977:77). Schafer’s sexist assumption that only men  speaking through loudspeakers is worth noting—as I see it, both men’s and women’s voices could transmit imperialistic sound in this way, but a “snap response” would also be gendered.) 

Within a few seconds, I settled on the form my move would take: stand up, shout something concise, and leave the room. The words “You’re a hypocrite!” flowed spontaneously from there—words grounded in my direct experience of the disconnect between Dr. Barz’s present remarks and previous actions. Immediately upon leaving the room, an adrenaline rush flowed out of my body and I staggered towards a nearby bench, where I collapsed to catch my breath.

Again, I regret that these remarks focused on President Barz as an individual. Had I more time to think through what I would have stated, perhaps “This is unacceptable,” “These actions are hypocritical,” or “Please don’t ignore us” would have been what came out. And yet, by this point, the sound of this intervention had already been determined by the immediate constraints of the situation: had I chosen to sound in a way that was coded as “civil”, I literally would not have been heard by more than a few people in the room.

“broken cedar” Image by Flickr user Erik Maldre (CC BY 2.0)

Even after this intense incident, my experience of the conference in Albuquerque was very positive overall. SEM is full of brilliant emerging scholars asking extremely important questions; it was especially encouraging to see more attention being brought to the imperatives of decolonization and anti-racism. At the same time, in order for these inquiries to be truly productive, we still need to turn our analysis towards the ways in which the status quo of our governance practices unintentionally reproduce systems of oppression and create harm. Tamara Levitz, in her recent article  “The Musicological Elite,” sheds light on how this has been the case within an adjacent academic organization, the American Musicological Society. She writes, “My premise is that musicologists need to know which actions were undertaken, and on what material basis, in building their elite, white, exclusionary, patriarchal profession before they can undo them.” (2018:43).  Despite some evident wishful thinking to the contrary, SEM reproduces harm in similar ways and would benefit from similar institutional self-reflection.

By yoking itself to the project of the North American university system, the Society for Ethnomusicology has created strong incentives for members to go along with what Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein call the “Modes of Accumulation” of these institutions. We must urgently turn towards critical institutional self-examination to consider how we can change our practices to resist complicity with these forms of professionalized domination and control.

In order to do so, we need better mechanisms for dissent and communication, especially when we have the rare opportunity for face-to-face communication. We must address what seems like an increasing tension between preserving the institutions of tenure-track music academia and the broader needs of the Society’s full membership. Crucially, Ahmed turns to listening as a key methodological practice for locating “feminist snap”:

To hear snap, one must thus slow down; we also listen for the slower times of wearing and tearing, of making do; we listen for the sounds of the costs of becoming attuned to the requirements of an existing system. To hear snap, to give that moment a history, we might have to learn to hear the sound of not snapping. Perhaps we are learning to hear exhaustion, the gradual sapping of energy when you have to struggle to exist in a world that negates your existence. Eventually something gives. 

In this case, listening for the silences—and silencing—that preceded this instance of “snap”may be useful. To my ear, they index the “sound of not snapping”: the unanswered emails, averted eye contact, unreturned phone calls—these are the sounds of a snap to come. These silences are empowered by our collective reliance on a discourse of “civility,” propped up by formal procedures like Robert’s Rules of Order, that deems certain types of sounds and communication to be out of bounds. Indeed, as Hollis Robbins has observed, “Under Robert’s Rules, silence equals consent.” Listening for feminist snap would require a commitment to naming these silences—and allowing space for them to be spoken into. 

I sincerely hope that my moment of becoming a spectacle can spark more productive conversations and deeper listening. Still, the magnitude of the challenges that we face to align our governance practices with shared institutional values will require creative solutions. I am confident that our experience and training as listeners can bring us to a fuller engagement with democratic processes—and that this can lead us towards productive solutions. This work is already being done by many groups and individuals within the Society, such as the Committee for Academic Labor, the Crossroads Committee, the Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group, the Diversity Action Committee, the Ethics Committee, the Gender and Sexualities Task Force, the Gertrude Robinson Networking Group, the Section on the Status of Women, and many others. I am confident that members of these groups are actively working to build spaces that allow for us to listen into the structural and cultural changes we desperately need.

In the meantime, I remain committed to seeking out collaborative solutions to the challenges we face. Please feel free to reach out to me by email with any feedback you feel compelled to share. Furthermore, if you would like to contact the Ethics Committee about any issues of ethical import to the Society, you may do so here. Anonymous submissions are also possible through this portal.

I’d like to close this essay with an apology, as well—addressed to all of my peers who have experienced harm or abuse through their involvement with SEM: I am truly sorry that I have not done more to work towards redress for the harms that you have experienced. I am also deeply sorry that I have not done more to examine how my own desire to see projects through in this community has led me to ignore signs of harm taking place. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to express this to a few of you in person, and I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity. For anyone else who would like to reach out, I will commit to listening. For us to do better, I need to do better.

Thank you for taking the time to read this statement—I look forward to continuing our work together to create a sustainable future for the practice of ethnomusicology.

Featured Image: “I Broke a String” by Flickr User Rowan Peter (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Alex W. Rodriguez is a writer, improviser, organizer, and trombonist. He holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology from UCLA, where his research was based on fieldwork conducted in Los Angeles, California from 2012-2016, Santiago, Chile from 2015-2016, and Novosibirsk, Siberia in fall 2016. Alex is currently based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, USA.

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

My Music and My Message is Powerful: It Shouldn’t be Florence Price or “Nothing” –Samantha Ege

becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectivesRajna Swaminathan

Sounding Out Tarima Temporalities: Decolonial Feminista Dance Disruption–Iris C. Viveros Avendaño 

On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler

Canonization and the Color of Sound Studies Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

My Music and My Message is Powerful: It Shouldn’t be Florence Price or “Nothing”

Flashback to the second day of the recent Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference in Melbourne, Australia (6-8 July 2018). In a few hours, I will perform the first movement of the Sonata in E minor for piano by Florence Price (1887–1953). In the lead-up, I wonder whether Price’s music has ever been performed in Australia before, and feel honored to bring her voice to new audiences. I am immersed in the loop of my pre-performance mantra:

My music and message is powerful, my music and message is powerful.

Repeating this phrase helps me to center my purpose on amplifying the voice of a practitioner who, despite being the first African-American woman composer to achieve national and international success, faced discrimination throughout her life, and even posthumously in the recognition of her legacy.

In Price’s time, there were those in positions of privilege and power who listened to her music and gave her a platform. One such instance was Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his 1933 premier of her Symphony in E minor. But there were times when her musical scores were met with silence. For example, when she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra requesting that he hear her music, the letter remained unanswered. There was a notable intermittency in how Price was heard, which continues today. It seems most natural for mainstream platforms to amplify her voice in months dedicated to women and Black history; any other time of the year appears to require more justification. And so, as I am repeating this mantra—my music and message is powerful—I am attempting to de-centre my anxieties, and center my service to amplifying Price’s voice through an assured performance.

I applied to the conference a few months ago. I was keen to bring my research to new audiences. Upon seeing that the conference was in Australia, I knew this would be a fantastic opportunity to gain transnational insight into the ongoing work around representation and inclusion in music. Fast-forward to July: here I am, in Australia for the first time. The venue is unfamiliar and I have not met anyone here before this visit. However, this is what I do know: I have fifteen minutes for my performance; hence, I have only prepared the first movement of the sonata. Looking in the program, I noticed there will be a paper taking place at the same time as my performance, given by an academic who identified himself in his printed abstract as “a white, old, straight man with power and privilege.”

The title of his paper? “I Have Nothing to Say.” While gender diversity was the overarching theme of the conference, the goal towards inclusion negated the fact that not all platforms are created equal. The speaker’s proposed topic advertised the ease with which the dominant voice may access a space for its mere presence, regardless of what will be said. Conference logistics then set this voice and its contribution against the radically diverse sounds of our time slot.  In addition to my lecture and performance, there are several other events taking place simultaneously. The subjects include: mentoring women composers, creative realizations of parenthood in composition, gender balance in Australian jazz, interpretative approaches to the music of Kaija Saariaho, music as a vehicle for navigating the challenges around non-binary and transgender identity, and a cis-gendered white man’s exploration of ceding power and listening.

I remember a casual conversation the night before in which the joke arose of the speaker being “the token white man.” Of course it was a joke; the very notion is absolutely ridiculous. I remember reflecting on tokenization earlier that day and tweeting to that effect:

I knew the joke was light-hearted, but there is nothing light-hearted about being a token, nothing light-hearted about knowing your excellence, yet wondering if it will even factor into the decisions around your involvement. Anyway, I did not want to prioritize thoughts about the token white man over my purpose at the conference because that would take up time, space and energy, and in my pre-performance rituals, that time, space and energy belongs exclusively to the women that I seek to honour.

When it is time to perform, I bow, then sit, then sink into the first sound, which is this rich e minor chord that engages almost all of my fingers. I relish the rich tones in the grandeur of the introduction. But as the first theme comes in, conjuring up the soundworld of plantation songs, I calm the mood down to ensure that the lyricism of the top melody really sings.

My music and message is powerful.

The performance is followed by a presentation where I talk more about the sonata, who Price was, and what she achieved. I make sure to highlight her Arkansan roots and her Chicago successes, particularly around the Symphony in E minor. I speak about the influence of the spirituals within the classical frameworks of her compositions. I also speak about the privilege and the incredibly moving significance of being able to present and perform her music for an audience, largely of African descent, at the Chicago Symphony Center.

I play excerpts from the rest of the sonata off my recent album Four Women on Spotify and struggle to find the best time to pause the track because there is so much that I want the audience to hear: from the development of spiritual themes in the second movement, to the virtuosic whirlwind that is the final movement.

A dynamic discussion ensues, weaving in the narratives of Nina Simone, African-American folk tradition and my passion for this repertoire. I elaborate upon the ways in which exploring classical music by women has been an empowering personal journey. I articulate how the perception of men achieving “firsts” renders them gods while women achieving “firsts” are miracles that were never supposed to happen, that may never happen again. I express my role as a musicologist-pianist as demonstrating a long and rich history of women music-makers and, therefore, evidencing precedents—her-stories—for the creative contributions of women now. My time comes to an end and I am left feeling proud to have represented Price’s music and legacy here, today.

After my performance, I tweeted the following thought-through (but clearly not proof-read) thread expressing my disappointment:

 

My goal with this post was to juxtapose this paper with Price’s music and career, spotlighting the implications of uneven power and access therein.

 

 

Wrapped up in my post was the criticism of the fact that, being a university professor, the speaker of “I Have Nothing to Say,” has access to this kind of platform year-round, while marginalised voices only get amplified in the specific and limited spaces that society has carved out for them.

My critique is not about the individual, but about the systemic and institutionalized undermining of underrepresented voices, even at a conference designed to amplify them. The fact that such a work was placed on such a program evidences the extent to which we are so conditioned to ensuring the most powerful and privileged voice speaks in every single space, even when they acknowledge they have nothing to say.

Since posting that evening to both Twitter and Facebook, I have received a backlash on the latter, one that is, at present, unaffiliated with the organisers of the event. It has, however, attempted to derail the conversation. Apparently I was only upset because my program faced competition from other papers. Maybe I should have looked into the scheduling to make different arrangements. Or I should have found out what the speaker’s talk was about because there is a chance that I would have enjoyed it. Repeatedly, the onus was placed on me to reach out to the “token white man” and better understand his position. I also learned something new: passing judgement on a presentation because of its title is no better than passing judgement on a composer because of their gender. However, I was under the impression that the paper title was a choice and that Price’s identity as a black woman was not.

Anyway, I did not judge by the title. I judged by the abstract:

When one of the organisers of this conference suggested in a Facebook exchange on someone else’s post that I should submit an abstract for a paper, I was surprised. And a little frightened. What could I possibly contribute to such an event? I am the problem. I am a white, old, straight man with power and privilege. Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context. Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard. Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening. But then I felt that this is what needs to be said. I am and old straight white man who says that the job of people like me is to actively get out of the way, actively cede power and authority, actively be told, actively shut the fuck up. So I decided to use the occasion to practice a way of speaking that does those things, gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up. To practice speaking which listens. A listening-speaking. So that’s what I am trying to do in this paper. To enact a listening-speaking that gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up.

The speaker’s participation was invited and his proposal both encouraged and evidently accepted by the organizers. The abstract presents a sense of knowing better. “Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context.” Yes. “Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard.” Yes. “Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening.” Yes! “But…”

Ultimately, what needed to be said, actually needed to be done. The enacting of a listening-listening with neither platform nor audience would have been a powerful statement, quietly powerful, but powerful nonetheless. To reiterate, not all platforms are made equal—could I, realistically, have told him to shut the fuck up? How would that have sounded? How would I have sounded?

The derailing responses I have received pointedly ignore how the very presence of this paper disrupted the multiple and intersectional conversations happening in that moment. It distracted from the rarity of these subjects and their platform, and quite materially, culled an audience who could and should have been doing the very listening the abstract advertises. Scheduling this paper restored the speaker’s position to the center, and re-centered his power and authority to speak about everything and “nothing.” His privilege remained intact. In the midst of the most diverse and pertinent themes was the voice that has, both historically and to this day, spoken over the top of so many others.

“Trocadero Piano Player” by Flickr User Pierre Metivier (CC BY-NC 2.0) 

I chose not to reach out directly to the institution nor its organisers because of the emotional labor this would entail. To put the issue forward in a quiet behind-the-scenes way that is sensitive to those who created the issue, is to chip away at my voice and its power. On the otherhand, to project the issue with a loud “shut the fuck up” is to perform a type of power and privilege on a platform that I do not have.  I enact a public conversation here via Sounding Out! so that this experience may inform wider work towards diversity and representation. I enact this conversation in order to progress definitions of inclusion to a point where the choice to engage the dominant voice factors in a listening-listening as an exceedingly valuable contribution to the narratives offered by lesser heard voices.

I have since received a written acknowledgement from the organizers of this problematic programming, with a formal apology for the impact. But I must bring to light the important action of two allies, in particular, who recognised the emotional work required of me to bring this forward institutionally. They offered to continue the conversation on my behalf. We talked about the way in which the ensuing discussion must center listening. We shared that the process towards inclusivity may result in mistakes being made along the way. We discussed that while compassion and sensitivity can be important parts of the dialogue, I cannot afford to extend that compassion and sensitivity without becoming emotionally drained. And so, they wrote to the institution with the message of actively learning and making efforts towards change. I am so grateful for that allyship because while I knew that my voice would be heard, I could not guarantee how it would be heard. After all, if there is one take away to be had from this experience, it is that regardless of intention—and regardless of occasion—the dominant voice is very much conditioned to speak up, and speak over. And the dominant ear cannot help but listen.

So, how do I move forward?

My music and my message is powerful.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Author

Samantha Ege is a British musicologist, pianist and teacher based in Singapore. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Music at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on the aesthetics of Florence Price. As a pianist, her focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore (supported by the British High Commission and International Women’s Day), and lecture-recitals at the University of York, the Chicago Symphony Center and the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, USA. Her album Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland & Bonds reflects her journey into a rich and unrepresented repertoire.

She would like to thank Deborah Torres Patel for the gift of this mantra.

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

Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa Valdes

becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives–Rajna Swaminathan

Sounding Out Tarima Temporalities: Decolonial Feminista Dance Disruption–Iris C. Viveros Avendaño 

Gendered Soundscapes of India, an Introduction –Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler

 

 

 

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.

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

%d bloggers like this: