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“Share your story” – but who will listen?

DH ListeningEditor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

On our opening week, Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Then, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. This week, Fabiola Hanna reflects upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Germanic and Holocaust historian and Digital Humanist Todd Presner has worked through more than 52,000 testimonies of the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, perhaps the largest archive of testimony, to investigate “the ethics of the algorithm.” The scale of this participatory archive has prompted Presner to ask: is it possible for a computer to listen to testimony?

Digital Humanities (DH) projects are, in varying degrees, led by the desire to engage with a wider public. Some often include actions such as inviting participants to share their stories, images, audio clips, drawings, and videos. In order to avoid lumping all DH works under a broad category that includes, among others, text analysis, mapping, visualization, 3D, and archiving. Below I examine DH projects that collect oral histories: memories, stories, and testimonies.

I argue that it is not enough to share stories; it is also important to recognize how these stories are shared. A majority of these living histories end up in an audio or video database displayed in full on a webpage, not unlike oral history transcripts ending up in a dusty closet. Listening as an active mode of participation can provide us with a framework that reveals the relationships, aesthetics and politics engendered by participation. Although seemingly about access (and some have started questioning whether users of such an archive should have access by default, or whether you need to be part of a community in order to access certain stories, see Mukurtu CMS), my focus is rather on the medium that these stories are circulated in, how they are displayed to the user and what the user’s participation does to these stories.

I take the space here, on the one hand, to think through participation from two fields, archives and interactive documentary (i-docs), and on the other hand to write about how sound studies, particularly an attention to listening and its aesthetics, its affordances, and its politics, can offer another approach to participation.

SO! Screen Capture from "The WorryBox Project"

SO! Screen Capture from Irene Lustzig’s “The WorryBox Project”

DH + participation: steps towards making place for popular

The work of requesting participation is in itself an accomplishment. It’s only been since the 1950s/60s, and perhaps more broadly since the 1990s, that ordinary peoples’ stories have been valued in the tradition that oral historians have established. It is possible to trace the field’s origins to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (itself rooted in Paolo Friere’s work), to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or to postmodernism, the death of the author, and the end of grand narratives. With the arrival of Web 2.0, oral history seemed like the perfect medium for the ideals of participation on the Internet, precisely because it was about the everyday and involved “anyone” (with an internet connection). Video, audio and live streaming technologies made it possible for oral history to be recorded and displayed, and social media enabled unprecedented circulation through sharing. So the recent push to preserve everyday histories online, in DH projects, follows these ideals of stories from below.

Listening to stories as a mode of engagement is fitting with regards to oral history and testimony. Making space with openness and silence for someone’s testimony, especially when difficult, is a mode of participation that we aspire to. Media scholar Wendy Chun has argued that “a politics and practice of listening [is] a necessary complement to a politics of testifying.” In the case of Holocaust testimony, for instance, many scholars have argued that there is a responsibility to listen (Laub & Felman and Henry Greenspan).

I differentiate between two types of listening:

  1. Listening on the part of the users of these DH projects. Is it realistic to expect that users will listen to large archives of testimony? In Listening Publics, Kate Lacey writes that listening has been absent from theories of the public sphere, even where “the objective of political agency is often characterized as being to find a voice – which surely implies finding a public that will listen, and that has a will to listen” (viii). Because of their scale, these large archives of testimony pose a significant design challenge to the user, which could be resolved through curation. To build on one of the most successful digital storytelling projects, the Storycorps team knows very well that if they didn’t curate and edit together shorter versions, then no one would listen to the longer interviews in full.

storycorps

  1. Listening on the part of the interface and its design. This involves questioning the medium and its effects on what it houses. Here I find Susan Bickford’s work very useful in her definition of listening and what it accomplishes: ‘the riskiness of listening comes partly from the possibility that what we hear will require change from us’ (1996, 149). If interfaces for stories pre-close any openness to what contributed stories could change, then listening is not being considered. This is more directly seen in the tagging of videos and their categorization without additional interpretational work. This will to not “add” to these stories seems to come from the premise that these testimonies should “speak for themselves” (I get to this point in a little bit); that no added interpretation is needed, even that any added interpretation distracts from the directness of the stories. But this often also means the medium and its effects on these stories are not carefully examined.

Contrary to Western cultural beliefs, listening can be seen as an active mode of participation in conversation. As Jodi Dean rightly argues, it is not enough to express one’s opinion, or for a message to be circulated: it is crucial to get a response to the message. Lisbeth Lipari writes that even in Dean’s formulation, however, the response as speech is still emphasized, thereby ignoring the work that happens beforehand: the listening. Apart from the major contribution of Susan Bickford, mentioned above, with the concept of political listening, little attention has been paid to listening in the field of political theory.

DissonanceAndDemocracyBySusanBickford and TheOtherSideOfLanguageByGemmaCorradiFiumara

As arguably the most important philosopher on listening, Gemma Corradi Fiumara, writes: “listening involves the renunciation of a predominantly moulding and ordering activity; a giving up sustained by the expectation of a new and different quality of relationship” (as quoted by Lipari, 8). For Fiumara, listening is a mode of participation that is open and that does not pre-close potential possible contributions. Listening, therefore, as a mode of engagement can provide a useful method for thinking about participation in various contexts.

DH + Archives + i-docs

If a mission of a certain DH project is to engage with a wider public, then preservation of stories is not enough. More often than not, DH projects are already under difficult strain of resources, due to costs for developing technological projects and time for interviewing, collecting, indexing, tagging, uploading and making sense of these larger collections. DH have taken on a lot: preserving and archiving everyday stories with the mission to share with a wider public. It is useful to draw from experts who have been working through ideas of preservation and access: archivists. Archives generally have a mission of preservation, but when demands of sharing with a public arise, there are not many models from which to draw. Rick Prelinger writes that although the archive as a theoretical concept is overly theorized, its practice (in the plural form of the word) is under theorized.

792354770_316f1b981b_o

Image of StoryCorps collection area by Aaron “tango” Tang (CC BY 2.0).

Francis X Blouin and William G. Rosenberg trace the intersection of history and archives and found that Ranke, during the enlightenment, conceptualized history as a scientific endeavor in that truth could be extracted from archives through rigorous methodologies. This led to the idea that documents could “speak for themselves” (Blouin, 24). As if simply making documents available, without providing context of any sort, would reveal their inner truth. This is one of many cases where the reading of documents is taken for granted. It also ignores the effect that archivists have on the collecting, saving, and indexing of documents. Influential archivists such as Terry Cooke, Richard Brown and Brian Brothman have brought about new attitudes to repositories with an acknowledgment of the effect that archivists have on documents (as quoted by Richard J Cox, 33). This relatively recent push in archival theory, therefore, points to the flaws in the claim that documents on their own can represent themselves: that would be ignoring all the various power relationships at play, as well as the medium itself in which the stories are communicated.

In thinking about collaboration, with the unstated but implied goal of providing knowledge of a given subject, non-fiction film has experimented by inviting self-interested participants online and offline to contribute to projects. Sandra Gaudenzi makes clear that interactive documentaries, also called i-docs (documentaries designed for online or mobile viewing), are very distinct and that it is important to recognize the varying strategies employed by these digital projects: “uploading content is the most common way to collaborate in the case of online documentary, but it is definitely not the only one. […] contributions of content lead to co-creation but not to co-authorship, since the latter require a degree of intervention in the overall concept (i.e., form) of the product.” In her differentiation of co-creation and co-authorship, Gaudenzi points to the medium-limiting effect that users have in their participation. The “degree of intervention,” as a coming in between that leads to change, which Gaudenzi requires for co-authored documentaries, might be attained through listening, a listening through the work itself, such as The WorryBox Project.

Listening in The WorryBox Project

Irene Lusztig’s The WorryBox Project (2011) web-based documentary invites mothers to write their worries in an online form, which Lusztig then individually writes down on a piece of paper, rolls-up and stores in a physical box. The act of writing down in analog form what was input into a digital box goes an extra step beyond collection. It is emblematic of an extended care for these worries. The additional layer of documenting these actions, as part of the artwork itself, not only points to the embodiment of these worries but also to their representation.

worryBoxDigitalAnalog

Because listening has often been thought of as passive and feminine, it is also associated with a specific kind of caring, also in its passive and feminine forms. But I don’t equate that definition of care with listening, which surely the readers of this blog will question. In this case, care extends as a mode of listening because it pushes against the active/passive binary for speaking/listening. I use care in the sense it gave to curating (care is its early root), where curating points to the work of engagement and conversation.  Curating as a form of listening.

ListeningPublicsByKateLacey and ListeningThinkingBeingByLisbethLipari

This extended care would be an example of the listening I am thinking of. The work of translating the form’s digital input into the handwritten words and the documentation of that act stretch the layering of interpretation and with it the care given to these submissions. The change that occurs in this writing is definitely not an agreement or an endorsement of what is submitted but an open attitude of listening, of reception. This reinforces the notion that listening is not passive, but an active mode of participation. 

This mode of listening does not imply an understanding, as the receipt of information in cybernetics theory suggested by Shannon and Weaver. Rather this mode of communication embraces the notion that listening does not necessarily mean an understanding. The audio action collaborative Ultra-Red conveys this idea perfectly: “Sound possesses a palpable promiscuity in relation to the body. One may say what one means, but somewhere between the mouth that speaks and the ear that hears, sound always exceeds its master. Politically, it may be useful to say that we hear the truth in the voice or that we listen with obedience, but sound always transgresses such duties.” So for DH storytelling projects to be participatory, it is beneficial to allow stories the space for listening, in a similar sense to Hannah Arendt’s “distancing” in order to understand. This brings me to media and communication’s scholar Lisbeth Lipari’s term for this: “listening otherwise.”

SO! Screen Capture of Irene Lustzig's "The Worry  Project"

SO! Screen Capture of Irene Lustzig’s “The Worry Project”

For Lipari, in engaging with difficult stories or perhaps stories that offer different perspectives: “It is […] a listening otherwise that suspends the willfulness of self- and foreknowledge in order to receive the singularities of the alterity of the other” (185, emphasis in original). For this “listening otherwise” to work online, I argue that it is important for the employed structures, systems and processes to reflect this specific kind of participation. In other words, in addition to placing “different voices” side-by-side, it is equally critical for these different perspectives to exist in a space where the medium, whether the recording, the software, the interface and its design, listens to what these differences are. An interface designed in order not to predetermine, not to predict or preclose what others might contribute would then be an example of this listening. Anthropomorphizing aside, for a computer to listen to testimony, as Presner asks, it must be designed to be open to changing itself.

Fabiola Hanna is a new media artist & software designer currently working towards a PhD in Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz where she also holds an MFA in Digital Arts & New Media. Her doctoral work is on building an automatic editing machine that weaves together competing narratives about the history of Lebanon, which has led her to engage with software studies & digital humanities, archives & memory and new media art activism.  

Her work has been exhibited widely in California at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, the New Children’s Museum in San Diego, the SubZero Festival in San Jose, the Digital Arts Research Center in Santa Cruz, and the Maker Faire in San Mateo. She is also a 2015 fellow of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at the New School, New York and has previously taught at University of California, San Diego and at various maker spaces including FabLab San Diego and MakerPlace.

Her website is fabiolahanna.com and she can be reached by email fhanna {@} ucsc {dot} edu.

Featured Image: “Story Corps” by Steve Rhodes, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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From “listening” to “filling in”: where “La Soeur Écoute” Teaches Us to Listen

DH Listening

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

Next week Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us last week about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Today, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. As she reflects on this nun’s job, she senses her notion of listening (especially in the context of the digital) change.

Sit down, fade into the background, and listen closely. Mother Superior will want all the details.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Who is she?

At the beginning of my doctoral research on listening, while I looked in French dictionaries for the word “écoute” I came upon, almost systematically, the expression “soeur écoute.” For example, this dictionary says “soeur écoute” is a nun who, in a monastery, accompanies in the parlor room another nun who gets visited.

This is how I met this cloistered nun called “la soeur écoute” (literally, “the sister listening”, or “sister listen”, if a literal translation has any sense here). The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions. She is a listener, just as you would say, “I’m a librarian”. However I prefer to say “she is listener”, without the “a”, even if it is not proper English. In French, elle est écoute, and believe me, this resonates amazingly. To me, the “soeur écoute” is a fascinating woman because her activity has ceased to exist in monasteries, allowing me to imagine her experience, behavior, life and occupation as a cloistered nun.

Here she is at work. A visitor is knocking on the monastery’s door  — can you hear it? The “soeur écoute” welcomes the visitor and leads him/her through the place until they reach the parlor. The room is divided in two spaces by a metal or wooden grille, the sacred one and the secular one. The “soeur écoute” has the visitor sitting in front of the grille, on the secular side of the room. On the other side, the nun who is being visited is already sitting, waiting for the “soeur écoute” to pull aside the curtain that hides the grille. The “soeur écoute” then sits next to the visited nun, slightly in the background. During the conversation, she neither speaks nor moves nor takes any notes. She just listens. When the session is finished, she closes the curtain and leads the visitor to the exit. Later, she promptly reports what she heard to the mother abbess.

The word “écoute” has three moments in its evolution over time (of course with some overlapping). In order: someone, somewhere, something. “Someone” refers to the 12th century (“écoute,” as a person, is attested in France at the beginning of this century), and “somewhere” to the 15th (meaning the place from where you listen). Then, listening considered as “something” (the “thing” you must have to be able to hear attentively) goes back the 19th. In our common comprehension of what listening is, we are now entirely in the “something” part, with no overlapping at all. For my research, the minute I started to look at my “object” as a “person,” my thinking shifted. The “soeur écoute” rung a bell: we are in the “something” timeframe of the notion of listening, and this could blind us in our comprehension of what listening in 2016 really is.

Listening Behind Bars

Firstly, the “soeur écoute” is also called, in some sources, “auscultatrice.” For example, I found a mention (with a missing “t”) of such nuns in a primary source of 1705 concerning the Ursulines de la Congrégration de Paris. The document tells neither how the “auscultatrice” should behave, nor the technical rules to apply, such as the distance between the grille and the visited nun, or the distance between the “auscultatrice” and the visited nun. But it does indicate how the visited nun should behave with her. In the section called “De la manière dont les Religieuses se doivent comporter au Parloir” (How nuns must behave in the parlor), we read:

Règlemens des religieuses Ursulines, 1705, p. 95.

“They will be humble and reserved in their behavior. They will avoid inappropriate gestures, as well as the distraction of sight, bursts of laughing, speaking loudly or impetuously, although they always are expected to speak in an intelligible way, so that the auscultatrice can hear them” (my translation).

The term “auscultatrice” is reminiscent of the very roots of the word “écoute,” the Latin auscultare, a combination of “(…)auris, a word that gives the first part of the verb auscultare,” and “a tension, an intention and an attention, which the second part of the term marks’, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains.

In the case of the Ursulines, it is a paradox, as the word “écoute” had been used since the 12th century, and the expression “soeur écoute” commonly used since the end of the Middle Ages. I suspect a marketing reason here: “auscultatrice” sounds much more strict and in-depth than “soeur écoute,” providing the idea of a pure and original listening, if not conservative.

Second, the “soeur écoute” is part-time. A primary source dating of 1628, in a 1876 book, mentions 25 nuns interviewed about their occupations inside the Sainte-Praxède monastery. Seven among them claim to be or to have been “auscultatrice” (p. 52–54, 193, 198, 212, 234). All of them double it up with another job, such as nurse or organist. Some of them also claim being “auscultatrice de la porte” (auscultatrice of the door) or “auscultatrice du parloir” (auscultatrice in the parlor). The grille, the door and her body (when she strides along the monastery), are her work instruments, her listening prostheses.

Third, the “soeur écoute” appears to have amazing skills. In the Dictionnaire françois, by Pierre Richelet (1680), she is called “tierce”, meaning she is the third element in the triangle of the setting in the parlor, hence, a mediation :

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 448

Also, the plural “ÉCOUTES“ (written in capital, as to demonstrate a precedence on the singular form) : “this word is used to designate people placed to listen and to discover what is happening” (my translation).

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 265

She indeed has an ability to discover what is happening, by watching, observing, monitoring, keeping an eye, but also by aggregating the data she is collecting.

The parlor in motion

As I was writing a few pages devoted to the “soeur écoute” for my dissertation, I stumbled upon an oral history documentary,funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, called Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). As Abbie Reese describes on her website, it is “a collaborative documentary film  — a portrait made with and about a young woman transitioning into a cloistered religious community that follows an ancient rule.” Reese explains:

The severity of their lives is striking. During the four visits permitted each year, the nuns and their loved ones are separated by a metal grille and are not supposed to reach through the bars to touch one another.

Today, this order, as others, uses “extern sisters” to provide the link with the outside world.

Intrigued by this grille, reminiscence of the “soeur écoute,” I watched the 8-minute demo and was stricken by two moments. The first one, at 2:20, shows Abbie Reese in the parlor, with a computer, in front of the metal grille. Behind it, one of the cloistered nuns reaches the computer through the bars in order to plug in a cable. At 07:55, this time from the point of view of the Poor Clare nuns, we see the parlor with the grille covered by a green curtain. A nun walks in, pulls aside the curtain. Then, at 08:02, from the secular side again, a nun closes the curtain while saying : “you can turn it off!”.

What did we just witness? A cloistered contemplative nun reached through a metal grille to transfer some video files into a computer. It is here, around this gesture, that I see digital humanities coming into the picture along with listening. Of course I’m not building a case on the cable itself, or on the video files. It is the gesture more than anything else that draws my attention: the exact moment where the nun reaches the computer through the bars.

A surveilled sequence of events

As it comes from the outside world, by definition a visit to the monastery disturbs the extremely scheduled sequence of events and rules giving rythm to the monastery’s life. From this point of view, the “soeur écoute” is the only one, in the enclosure of the monastery, in power of keeping watch (“épier”) on what is around her. In All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (English edition to be released in December 2016), Peter Szendy evokes the “écoute” (as a person) as the one whose job is to practice an auditive surveillance (“celui ou celle qui pratique la surveillance auditive”). Yet here, with this listening nun, we are reaching a listening that is much more than aural.

What does she do as a job? Surveillance? Espionage?  I would rather say that her listening is a lookout (“affût”), a sentinel (“sentinelle”) as well as a watch (“guet”) — I have to say here the English language lacks in qualifying precisely those notions. In this regard, Kate Lacey’s explorations around “listening in”, “listening out” and “mediated listening” is, to my understanding, an indication of the difficulty to define “the act of listening.” However, there is another aspect in which the “soeur écoute” appears as unbeatable : her ability to report. I suppose the relevance of the report depended on the visitor, so the nun had to decide whether or not to report to the abbess.

In French, there is a word to designate those who report: “rapporteur/rapporteuse.” When I was a kid, in a French school somewhere in France, being a “rapporteuse” was an insult. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remember the litany that was sung through the school’s playground against the poor one who was accused (I use the feminine here in order to relate with the nun, but it could be a boy of course). It was always “delivered” with the same few music notes and tone, by three, four, five kids, arm in arm, sweeping the playground with this human singing barrier of accusation:

Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ — (She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬)

All this to say that the “soeur écoute” reminds us that listening is linked to the act of reporting. In Listen: A History of Our Ears, Peter Szendy underlines listening as being not at all benevolent, the kindly meaning being a very late one in the long evolution of the notion. Quite the contrary, argues the French philosopher and musicologist, listening holds a great amount of perversity. When observing the “soeur écoute”, this is what we see: a woman whose listening is not kind.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Reaching through the bars of the grille

Let us revisit the video at 02:20: observing, again and again, the gesture of the nun with the camera cable. Her body and the grille. Her face and attitude. What she says. How she tries to plug the cable. Her hands and arms. Her fingers. Her way to deal with the grille. The nun is in movement between (and with) those technological objects, digitally ensuring the mediation between both worlds. In Listen, Szendy argues (in an ironic passage of the book, hence difficult to quote) that listening is “a matter of touching.” He stands up for “listening with our fingertips” (in the French edition, slightly different: “l’écoute au bout des doigts”). While doing so, Szendy plays wonderfully with the word “digital.” In French it has two meanings : “digital” refers to the fingers, but also to the digital, like the one of the digital technologies (although more often translated as “numérique”). The “digital” intervention of “sister listener” then takes a new dimension, between fingers and technology.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

In All Ears, Szendy highlights listening as a kind of intelligence activity, “activité de renseignement” in French. Yet, “renseignement” also means filling in a metadata, or, if you prefer, a field that describes a digital object. Like the nun trying to plug in the cable. The “soeur écoute” then appears as a figure of a “filling in” processes and practices : while listening, she also informs, and in-forms.

The grille and the grid

I just read the fascinating story around a visit in a cloistered monastery close to my home in Montréal. Again a grille. Again a green curtain. This time though, the nuns reach easily through the bars, shaking hands. Nuns have the internet. They know how to catch the rumor of the world, if they wish to.

My partner told me recently: “it seems you are building a case on someone whose job does not exist anymore to reflect on something very contemporary, the digital.” Yes, it is exactly that. This is what is so liberating with the “soeur écoute.” And no, it is not exactly that, my dear: I’m not sure she does not exist anymore. What if a little bit of a “soeur écoute” would be in all of us? In other other words, what if the way she listens would inform how we listen today, making the connection between listening as person (the “someone”), listening as place (the “somewhere”), and listening as object (the “something”)?

I see the “soeur écoute” as a reading grid, or framework, which forces to rethink listening and its role. Reaching through the bars, she helps expand the study of listening beyond its sonorous contours. She encourages to consider listening in order to include the non-sonorous aspects of “keeping watch” and “sentineling”. Going from one world to another, from one side to another, pulling aside curtains, she urges us, “researchers of listening”, being “tierce” and part-time in our methods and attitudes. Even if it has to go such as far as considering listening as a counterpoint to sound. After all this, maybe, starting to auscultate the relationship between listening and digital humanities.

I have to go. I have put Listening under custody. I have a cable to plug, and a report to write.

I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Featured image: FreeImages.com/Michael P***

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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Hearing Eugenics

DH ListeningEditor’s Note: Today we start off a series, a propos for World Listening Day 2016 on digital humanities and listening. As I mentioned in my Call for Abstracts in March, this forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it? The posts this month consider: how have particular digital studies, projects, apps, and online archives addressed, challenged, expanded, played with, sharpened, questioned, and/or shifted “listening”? What happens to digital humanities when we use “listening” as a keyword rather than (or alongside) “sound”? 

We will be hosting the work of DH scholars who are doing exactly that: prompting readers to consider what it means to listen in the context of DH projects. Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Emmanuelle Sonntag, who has written for SO! before, will be addressing listening from the starting point of the documentary Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). Today, however, we start things off with a collaborative piece from the Vibrant Lives team on the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records.

Don’t just stand there. Take a seat and listen.-Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor

In the 1920s a young woman was admitted by her mother to a mental institution in California. The local doctor recommended her for sterilization with the following notes:

has been reported to have interest in sexual encounters

Mother is pregnant and cannot care for her (thinks she may be able to post-sterilization).

This brief note is representative of the stories of the roughly 20,000 people who were sterilized in California institutions of mental health. The soundscape of these institutions is largely lost to the past. We cannot recover the sounds of treatment spaces, family visits, recreation, and everyday life of those in the care of the state of California who were considered feeble, insane, or otherwise out of control.

Like the conversations about illness and reproduction presumably had in those halls, the sounds of salpingectomies (removal of fallopian tubes), vasectomies (severing the vas deferens), and, later, tubal ligations are lost to us. In the absence of human rights violations, this is perhaps as it should be; we cannot collect the minutiae of everyday life. But in situations where reproductive and disability rights have been limited, where we can see race and gendered bias, we may well have need of telling such stories.

Reparative justice best practices dictate that survivors should be able to tell their own stories on their own terms. How can we listen to such stories when the majority of our survivors have died and we have little to nothing in their own words?

LatinaGirlStockton1940

A redacted sterilization form from Stockton State Hospital. Image courtesy of Alexandra Minna Stern

While conversations between patients, parents, and doctors might be lost to us in terms of playback, they have embodied traces in the nearly 20,000 people sterilized in California between 1919 and the 1950s under eugenic sterilization laws. The 19,995 sterilization recommendations and notes, brought together under the project Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, cannot currently be made publicly available due to U.S. patient privacy laws. Important documentary films like No Más Bebés, which tells the story of Mexican-American women sterilized without consent at Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center in the 1960s and 1970s, have made it possible for us to hear accounts of such reproductive injustice first hand. But for the thousands of people sterilized between 1909 and the repeal of eugenics laws in 1979, we must find other ways to listen and to hear.

Given the privacy restrictions on working with this dataset and our concerns to care for the people who are represented therein, we (the Vibrant Lives team) felt it was important to find alternative methods that did more than de-identified and quantified graphs could do. We know all too well that we can’t recover the past “as it was.” Nevertheless, we are working to bring the emotional and intellectual power of sound and critical listening to a largely unheard history of sterilization of Latinx people. Specifically, our project prompts listeners to consider how listening fits into reparative justice for the victims of sterilization.

"Listen" by Flickr user Fe Ilya, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Listen” by Flickr user Fe Ilya, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Listening Toward under the Law

That eugenics laws and their surgical enactments played out in racialized and gendered ways is not surprising but bears repeating. For example, according to work by Alexandra Minna Stern, Nicole Novak, Natalie Lira, and Kate O’Connor, patients with Spanish or Hispanic surnames were three times as likely to be sterilized as their non-Hispanic counterparts. Those lost sounds have traces in California’s Latinx communities, both in terms of the community structures themselves, but also in terms of soundscapes that never were because of sterilization. This acoustic ecosystem in which the politics of race, gender, nation, and mental health converged in dramatic fashion is recorded only in the bodies and medical records of the patients and the 21st century communities shaped by the children, born and unborn, of these patients.

Not only are we limited to working with the textual, institutionally generated remnants of the past, we are also constrained by 21st century health and personal data privacy laws. Our archive is a set of medical records and as such this collection contains sensitive patient data that must be de-identified and used in accordance with contemporary HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and IRB protocols.

This means that we cannot reveal names, dates, and other identifying information regarding those who were sterilized in the first half of the 20th century. We are unable to tell individual stories of sterilization lest the individual be identified. Traditionally, historians have used fictional composites to tell such stories and our collaborator Alexandra Minna Stern used this method in her 2015 second edition of Eugenic Nation.

The HIPAA guidelines and their impact on how we tell the history of medicine raises important legal questions about how we might balance a public right to know about practices (we’d call them abuses) within state-run facilities with the need to protect patients’ rights to privacy regarding their own reproductive and mental health. In some cases, it seems as though the privacy guidelines protect the state more than they protect any individual patient. In fact, we have seen a remarkable lack of concern for these records in their discovery and transmission. The records themselves were largely abandoned when Stern discovered the microfilm reels in the 2000s. They were lost again after she returned them to the state after having made a copy. The originals are lost as far as we know.

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“Archive” by Flickr user Carolina Prysyazhnyuk, CC BY-SA 2.0

Listening Toward the Past

Vibrant Lives is working not with sounds found, but with archival records found and then sonified (transformed into sound) as a way of listening toward those rooms, conversations, and procedures. In brief, this sonification entails the following steps

  • Selecting a subset of the large data set (we can’t currently process the whole)
  • Selecting between two and four axes of information, such as gender, race, age at sterilization recommendation, consent, or nationality
  • Mapping the informational values into numerical space – sonification requires the creation of a dataset whose limits are 1 and -1 (based on how the speakers work)

This work has been done to date using two tools: Sonification Sandbox, an open source tool developed at the University of Georgia, and GarageBand, a proprietary music making tool that comes with Macintosh computers. We use Sonification Sandbox to create the score first and then turn to GarageBand because it has a greater range of instrumentation available. The sonification process is still very experimental and exploratory. Team member Jacqueline Wernimont does all of our sonifications for us and she is trained as a historian of literature and technology. While she has extensive experience within digital humanities methodologies, sonification is a new effort for us.

We have begun producing short sample tracks that allow us to enact the kind of listening toward that we’re advocating for. In the track below, we have data from the age, gender, and consent axes for the period 1940-1949. Additionally, this sample draws only from what we’ve described as “Spanish surname” patients, the vast majority of whom were American-born of Mexican descent, although they also include some other Latinx national communities.

Latinx Eugenics Sample Track

 

As you listen, each note represents one Spanish-surnamed person recommended for sterilization. The children, both boys and girls under 18, who were sterilized without consent are the highest notes, and the adult men who were sterilized with consent are the lowest.

Listening Toward as Ethical and Communal

Listening is always about an ethical relationship and it is particularly fraught when the effort to listen and to encourage others to listen entails hearing about a person’s most intimate health information and experiences. This is particularly true when those experiences may include trauma from unwanted surgery or other experiences.

While we might think of patient privacy as a form of care, in this instance we find ourselves wondering who these regulations actually serve. According to the updated 2013 HIPAA guidelines, personal health records are no longer considered sensitive information 50 years after death (it was previously 100 years).  Preliminary estimates by our team indicate that as many as 1,000 survivors might be alive in 2016. However, while the vast majority of the people discussed in the records are no longer alive, family and friends may well be.

We respect the need for family members and friends to privacy when it comes to the health records of their loved ones. At the same time, an essential component of most restorative justice programs, like those undertaken for North Carolina eugenic sterilizations, is an articulation of the violations, which HIPAA blocks in many ways (North Carolina’s cases were revealed by investigative journalists who are not subject to HIPAA and the IRB regulations that we must adhere to as academics). As a consequence, those who might most benefit from reparations – sterilized individuals and their immediate families, including children – are likely to die before the privacy laws enable us to draw attention to the individual impacted by the racialized and gendered discrimination evident in the records.

The sonification of these records and the companion participatory performances that we facilitate allow us to intervene and share these important stories before all of the survivors and family members have passed away. We have the opportunity to drive justice-oriented processes forward while there is still time.

Consent/Non-consent Sample Track (entire population)

Vibrant Lives focuses not just on the stories but also on the people who listen to the audio. We spend time watching how our audiences participate in listening toward the history of eugenic sterilization in California. Below are images of recent presentations of this work in which we’ve incorporated both haptic (touch-based) and sonic performance.

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Participants listening at a presentation at the University of Kansas. Photo by Elika Ortega.

 

Part of what we see here is the attentive posture of our participants – leaning in to feel a history of sterilization. The haptics are being shared with a thin, red metal wire that the participants have to touch lightly in order to not dampen the signal for others. For us, this is an effort to bring care for the experiences of others into the performance. The history of eugenics has impacted communities and we are creating communal aural and tactile experiences as a way to disrupt the notion that academic work and knowledge is a solitary endeavor.

The performance captured above is also an exercise in patience and as such expresses a willingness on the part of the participants to sit with a disturbing history. The sample people are listening to and feeling here is 100 seconds long with each note/vibration corresponding to one person who was sterilized. In most performances the participants stay for the duration of the piece, but there have been instances where people have touched a haptic piece and then walked quickly away. We can’t know why some have chosen to walk away.

KUEugenicsImage3PamellaLachSome of those who have stayed have shared with us that they felt responsible to feel and hear each person. It’s an abstraction, to be sure, but we are intrigued by the power of listening and feeling to encourage people to not simply look and walk away. As one participant at a Michigan performance noted, the “tingling (from the haptics) lingers, it’s spooky.” Another participant at the same performance indicated that she felt “more implicated” having engaged with a multi-media experience than with a visual like a graph or chart. When asked why, she responded “I’ve felt it and will continue to remember that, but still will likely do nothing in response.”

In creating performances where participants have to care for one another and care enough about the people represented in the data to stay through a durational piece, we are working to redress the extraordinary lack of care that the records represent, both in terms of testifying to the violence done to men’s and women’s bodies and in terms of the State of California’s lack of regard for this history.

 

Sounds Felt, Sounds Touched

 

Our work is an ongoing experiment. We’ve moved from haptics along a wire, to haptic spheres that vibrate with the sonification. The image above is from one of these events this spring. We’ve retained the communal effect while transforming the embodied structure of the event. Participants now gather around, encircling the object as they listen toward a history of reproductive injustices. People still tend to lean in – to have heads lowered in a posture of intense focus. The sphere itself demands that someone cradle it and it also requires that people touch lightly once again so as to not dampen the experience for others.

We plan to expand our durational events in our next iteration known as “Safe Harbor” in which we hope to explore how to best care for those people sterilized by the state by caring for their data. In this instance we are thinking of sounds (and more) that we’ll make together with impacted communities. For this work we are particularly interested in engaging audience members in the hosting and care of the eugenics data and, by extension, the survivors.

As a way of enacting a site-specific response to both historical and contemporary human and reproductive rights violations that have occurred in the state, we plan to stage this durational event in California. We’ll begin by inviting audiences to help build and shape an empty warehouse space with us, transforming the empty space into a place of care where we can listen toward these histories. The audience will be invited to converse about the research and reflect upon conversations through making, creating, and ultimately building up our safe harbor.

We plan to listen to and co-create with impacted communities through collective making of the space. As a result, Safe Harbor will enact a cooperative improvisational process shaping socially responsive dialogue – performing, hearing, listening, documenting, and rebuilding notions of care in real time. What we hope to discover here are shared sounds of resistance, repair, and healing. Sounds that might let us listen toward the past, while also creating more just futures.

Featured image: “Water under 12.5 Hz vibration” by Jordi Torrents, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vibrant Lives is a collaborative team that makes, stages, and performs as part of interactive multimedia installations. Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley are both professors in the Dance area of the School of Film, Theater, and Dance at Arizona State University (ASU). Jacqueline Wernimont’s home department at ASU is English and she’s a digital humanities and digital archives specialist. Wernimont and Rajko are also multimedia artists/faculty working in Arts, Media, and Engineering.

The data derives from a larger project, known as Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, a multidisciplinary collaboration among Arizona State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and University of Michigan. This larger collaboration includes historical demography and epidemiology, public health, history of medicine, digital storytelling, data visualization, and the construction of interactive digital platforms. This team is quite large, with our center of gravity residing at the University of Michigan where historian of science Alexandra Minna Stern directs the Eugenic Rubicon lab. Stern discovered the microfilms of more than 20,000 eugenic sterilization patient records in 2013. Stern and her team have created a dataset with this unique set of patient records that includes 212 discrete variables culled from over 30,000 individual documents. This resource is the first of its kind, encompassing almost one-third of the total sterilizations performed in 32 states in the U.S. in the 20th century.

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