The Sound of What Becomes Possible: Language Politics and Jesse Chun’s 술래 SULLAE (2020)
“To this day I think about all the strange words I missed out on, all the losses I’m still carrying from faraway…I still think of the time when I spoke one language, and that language was whole.”Chun 2020
Language can be a site of loss, a wholeness with which one, due to migration, has never really known. In the above passage, artist, Jesse Chun, reflects on how her grandmother spoke words in a language she did not understand, but yearned to hear and feel those sounds after her passing. There is a sonic residue that sticks to diasporic experiences. There are sounds that can stir up a blend of affect and ideation that is comforting when whiteness is unsettling. It is this disjuncture between words, meaning, and their sounds, that drew me to Chun’s work, 술래 SULLAE (2020). This piece reminded me of how sound, in its most ambiguous and queer forms, can hold the contingencies of history, language, memory, family, and the genealogies of loss that mark these sites of colonial dispossession.
술래 SULLAE (2020) is a single channeled video that draws from ganggang sullae, a Korean seasonal harvest and fertility ritual that integrates song and dance and is typically performed by women under the glow of moonlight. The participants hold hands forming a circle that through their movement, expands, disassembles, and changes its form. The songs can be both impromptu or pre-determined and encourages the participants to express their feelings in chorus with one another.
Diana Seo Hyung Lee (2020) suggests that historically ganggang sullae was meant to provide a forum for its participants to express emotions connected to living within patriarchal systems of power and oppression. She writes: “the women participating would not have been able to, in their everyday lives, sing, speak loudly, nor leave the house at night, in the patriarchal society of ancient Korea. This dance was a license for their one release.” In 술래 SULLAE, the dance proves to be a defiant presence. The women flash on screen as an unbreakable chain reinscribing a gendered history with new sounds and images that gesture to emancipatory possibilities.
술래 SULLAE combines archival clips of ganggang sullae, index pages from intonation books, images of Hangul and English consonants and audio splices from YouTube tutorials on how to pronounce English correctly. In the video, language becomes unhinged from expectation but at the same time, given form through history. The sound of the English language is disembodied and spliced into phonemic pulses. In 술래 SULLAE, Chun has created an encounter with the grammars of polyphony; a simultaneity of sounds that are both restrained by and resistant to the imposition of English on the Korean diaspora. Through what Chun has described as a form of “unlanguaging” following Rey Chow, her audience is witness to new meanings produced through the abstraction, manipulation, and redaction of sounds and symbols from the English language.
Chun’s editing and manipulation of English sounds is intentional. In an interview with Art Forum, Chun shares: “Taking the sound apart but still keeping it within the conceptual framework of English made me think about what else is embedded in making a language. English is tied up with legacies of imperialism; there’s so much unseen violence that is part of how this language is institutionalized.” What remains after the edits is an inventory of sounds that disrupts the primacy of the vowel as central to English word construction and thus, central to colonial imagination.
Like Chun, I realize that my conceptualizing of language is within an English framework, but my hope is that when we turn to the affective and when we begin to pull language a part, something different, something resistant, is produced. I am neither an expert in English nor Korean linguistics, it was the sounds in this work that pulled me into it. In thinking with 술래 SULLAE, I’m interested in what becomes possible in the absence of the vowel. I turn to the interruptive potential of consonant sounds to affect and incite methods of communication outside of those steeped in colonial dominance. What does it mean to de-emphasize the function of vowel sounds in language and reorient our listening to the consonant? What do consonant sounds teach us about the sonics of race that underwrite hierarchies of language? What methods of communication become possible when we do away with words and are left with only their sonic substance?
Through her assemblage of consonant sounds in 술래 SULLAE, Chun is making a deliberate choice to describe and animate a politics of language through refusing its colonial enclosures and turning to the aesthetic in order hold the excesses of description. She refuses the vowel in this piece, not by denying its presence, but instead relegating it to the soundless and the unfamiliar, a space of, in her words, “untranslatability.” In this undoing, consonants become the emotive force where new meanings and orientations to the sounds that mark our words are forged.
술래 SULLAE opens with the sound ssshhh; a pairing of consonant sounds that is often associated with insisting on silence, a sound meant to reprimand. Chun extracts and emplaces this sound in a new aesthetic landscape that is independent and unregulated by colonial schemas of enunciation and translation. The prominent soundscapes of the video are consonant sounds and when removed from their phonetic relations to vowels these sounds undo the presumptive structuring or potential reprimand of English. In 술래 SULLAE, we are meant to experience the fullness of the consonants’ timbre…ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk…these edited clips of sound originally meant to instruct and assimilate speech into English pronunciations now serve a different function. For me, they secure Chun’s political orientation: one that is about the crafting of a world that involves the careful consideration of the logistics, function, and embedded emotions of the sounds that inhabit it.
All languages contain their own unique set of vowels and consonants, but, Anne Carson reminds us that: “The importance of vowels to human speech has remained. There are words in English without consonants, but so central are vowels to word construction that there isn’t a word in English that doesn’t include a vowel.” In speech, consonants sounds are meant to break up the intended agenda of vowels. The ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk, are antithetical to the circle or the rounded mouth needed to voice a vowel sound. Unlike the openness of a vowel, producing consonant sounds involves a narrowing of the vocal tract. This narrowing is referred to as constriction or the obstruction of breath whereby sound is produced by a form of corporeal tension. Consonant sounds also demand all the mechanics of the mouth: the lips, the teeth, the tongue, and the palette. Shhhh, requires the corners of the lips to lower and rather than rounding, the lips become pursed, and teeth become exposed. Parts of the mouth are drawn in. The soft palate is raised, and the tongue reaches upwards towards the roof of the mouth without touching it and then the tip of the tongue lowers behind the teeth.
Consonants emerge out of collectivity. Where a vowel is sounded without vocal constraint, consonants require more effort. Their sounds are produced through intricate bodily choreographies in the mouth that involve both constriction and collaboration. Ganggangsullae likewise relies on effort and interdependence. Participants collectively determine the speed and/or shape of their dance. They may even become serpentine or separate into smaller circles depending on what the group decides. The dance also provides an aesthetic space for its participants to voice frustration, anger, and tension through song with the hopes of producing reprieve from gendered hardships. Chun has decided to withhold these songs from her audience; we never hear the women singing. Through this erasure, Chun embeds the consonant sound with affective force whereby a politics of language and gendered presence is enunciated through and beyond a form of silencing. The dance redirects trajectories of dominance whereby the shushing takes on a new voice imbued with agency and hope. Because of how Chun isolates and amplifies its sound, ssshhhh is free to take on different meanings and associations. For me, I was reminded of rushing water or gusts of wind, or the sound used to lull my child to sleep. I was brought into another index of knowing and relating.
The sounds of language hold erasures and layered histories often obfuscated by our mundane encounters with them. Largely understood as the most sonorous part of the syllable, vowels produce the loudest speech sounds and their capacity for holding larger amplitudes or louder volumes have been linked to the sonic expression of emotion. Consonant sounds are more pragmatic than vowels. They are known for their functionality, for the ways in which they assemble the semantic structure of words and for their capacities to hold vowels in place or as Anne Carson describes as “delineating meaning amid the flow of open vowel sounds.” Consonant and vowel sounds map out different functional trajectories by virtue of the shape of mouth and orientation of breath that these sounds demand. Like Chun, I’m interested in what political orientations become possible when we source emotion elsewhere, beyond the confines of spoken words imposed upon us.
The word consonant is a noun, a word used to identify or classify, a semantic enclosure that establishes a subject or object. But unlike the word vowel, consonant is also an adjective. A consonant possesses the capacity to describe, to name, to tell us more. Adjectives parcel out description on states of being, in this way, they are inherently phenomenological. In 술래 SULLAE, Chun empties vowels of their sonic substance leaving behind traces of fragmented characters and differently shaped circles in their wake. They are stripped of breath and their symbolic value forming a new method of communication that reroutes expectations of what language, as we know it, can do and sound like. Like, ganggang sullae, the vowel is premised on the shape of a circle, but in 술래 SULLAE, Chun provokes us to think about what becomes possible beyond the circular structuring device, what becomes possible beyond the purview of the violent embeddedness of English and its colonial exigencies.
Chun has noted that the moon that hovers above the ganggangsullae is yet another site of imperial conquest. In Art Forum, Chun states: “when I look up at it to feel comforted or to find solace, I’m reminded of colonial violence and an agenda that’s projected onto it. In that way, the moon also reflected how I see language.” Chun’s turn to consonants signals a reshaping of the colonial frame that does not disavow or idealize the legacies of imperialism on systems of communication, but instead highlights the tensions and obstructions produced in its shadows.
Featured image: 술래 SULLAE, 2020, single-channel version, courtesy of artist
Casey Mecija is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Media Studies at York University. Her current research examines sound as a mode of affective, psychic and social representation, specifically in relation to diasporic experience. Drawing on sound studies, queer diaspora studies and Filipinx Studies, her research considers how sensorial encounters are enmeshed and disciplined by social and psychic conditions. She is also a musician and filmmaker, whose work has received a number of accolades and has been presented internationally.
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A Feast of Silence: Listening as Stoic Practice
In honor of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! brings you Pod-Tember (and Pod-Tober too, actually, now that we’re bi-weekly) a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Enjoy! –JS
Zeno of Citium, the Hellenistic philosopher who founded the Stoic school at the turn of the third century BCE, once had this advice to give to a garrulous young man: “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so that we might listen more and talk less.” The more we speak, Zeno was saying, the more self-absorbed and foolish we become; in learning to listen, we temper our own egos and attune ourselves to the truths of the world around us.
This piece of wisdom from a 2,300-year-old philosophy was a part of the marketer and best-selling author Ryan Holiday’s reflection on stillness and silence on the October 4 edition of his Daily Stoic podcast, a daily affirmational that brings listeners “a meditation inspired by the ancient Stoics illustrated with stories from history, current events, and literature to help you be better at what you do.” In citing Zeno, Holiday’s point was that while our highly mediated culture often rewards loudness, extroversion, and “hot takes,” we might do better to listen, and learn from others, rather than simply talk over them.
Over the past decade, Stoicism, which teaches that self-discipline, moderation, and emotional equanimity are key to overcoming hardship and living a good life, has had something of a revival as a self-help paradigm – and Holiday has been one of its most energetic evangelists. Articles in Vice, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Guardian, Forbes, Wired, and Sports Illustrated have all taken note of his influence among Silicon Valley tech workers, corporate executives, professional athletes, military personnel, and celebrities to whom he markets the philosophy as a “life-hack”; his six best-selling books on the subject, meanwhile, have positioned him as perhaps the most commercially successful author in a mushrooming genre of Stoic literature; and The Daily Stoic’s A-level guest list, which has included Malcom Gladwell, Camilla Cabello, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlamagne Tha God, has established Stoicism’s cultural cachet as a practical guide for living, and positioned Holiday as its authoritative interpreter.
Among the lessons Holiday draws from Stoicism, the practice of stillness (as his 2019 book puts it) is key: a way of quieting the mind, of “hear[ing] only what needs to be heard,” and really listening to the truth of the world in order to achieve the kind of tranquility (what the Greeks called apatheia) that will help us “think well, work well, and be well.”
With this emphasis on stillness, silence, and listening, it would seem quite appropriate that Holiday would turn to the aural medium of podcasting to proclaim the ancient wisdoms of Zeno, Cleanthes, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, for the Stoics, listening was a foundational skill through which one cultivated the habits of discipline, self-control, and self-reflection that are the heart of the Stoic way of life (askesis); for it is in quieting ourselves and listening that we begin to open ourselves to the teachings of the masters and think about their application in our own lives.
And Holiday is hardly the only Stoic podcaster. As I write this, a simple search on Stitcher yields over 30 podcasts with “Stoicism” in their titles or descriptions, many of which have been updated in the past month (December, 2021), including the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s Stoic Meditations, Stoicism Discovery, Stoicism on Fire, The Sunday Stoic, The Stoic Handbook, The Walled Garden, Stoic Coffee Break, and Stoic Solutions.
Elsewhere, Stoicism has been promoted by self-improvement podcasters like the tech investor and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss,and retired Navy SEAL and leadership coach Jocko Willink; and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the ancient Stoics were white men who emphasized values like rationality and self-mastery, which are typically coded as male – it has been advocated as a tactic for modern living by masculinity podcasters like Brett McKay and Ryan Michler.
Navigating this space can often feel like a small world (or, perhaps a promotional circuit): Holiday has been a guest on The Tim Ferriss Show, The Art of Manliness, and Order of Man, and has hosted Willink, McKay, and Ferriss on The Daily Stoic.
A full exploration of this network is outside my scope here. For now, I will consider the ways in which podcasting is particularly well-suited to Stoic askesis; and specifically, how the very act of listening – on our commutes, on long drives, at the gym, on hikes, and in moments of quiet meditation – constitutes what Michel Foucault (who himself drew upon Stoic texts in his later work on ethics) called a technology of the self: those techniques, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”
Part of a larger project investigating the historical emergence of discourses of sex and sexuality in Western culture, Foucault in his later writings and lectures turned his attention away from the normative and disciplinary systems of subjectivation that had previously concerned him, and toward the study of ethical modalities by which individuals actively fashioned their own subjectivity. Focusing particularly on the ethical practices of the ancient world, he discovered a more autonomous framework for individual conduct, one that centered on self-imposed standards and daily habits rather than a prescribed moral code.
This precept of the “care of the self” (epimeleia heatou), Foucault maintained, could be traced from Alcibiades to the Imperial period, and had impelled individual Greeks and Romans (the free white men, at least) to embark upon their own stylized projects of self-transformation.
Among the practices that interested Foucault – and indeed, the one he understood to be essential to the “subjectivation of true discourse” – was the act of listening. In the first hour of his March 3, 1982 lecture at the Collège de France (published in English in The Hermeneutics of the Subject), for example, Foucault explained that listening is
the first move in as[k]esis … since listening, in a culture which you know was fundamentally oral, is what enables us to take in the logos, to take in what is said that is true. However, if conducted properly, listening also makes it possible for the individual to be convinced of the truth spoken to him, of the truth he encounters in the logos. And, finally, listening is the first moment of the process by which the truth which has been heard, listened to, and properly taken in, sinks into the subject so to speak, becomes embedded in him and begins to become suus (to become his own) and thus forms the matrix for ethos (p. 332).
This emphasis on listening, Foucault noted, is evident as far back as the Pythagoreans, who required initiates to spend five years in silence so as to be able to learn the community’s exercises, practices, and philosophical precepts. The themes of silence and listening were further developed in the culture dominated by Stoicism, Foucault noted, and emerged as a “new pedagogical game” that contrasted with the earlier dialogic model. Now, the master spoke, and the student listened.
But the nature of audition could be somewhat ambiguous for the ancients, Foucault explained, in that it was a passive (pathetikos) activity, yet it is the primary sense through which we receive the logos, the rational substance that the Stoics believed to govern the universe. In his treatise On Listening, for instance, Plutarch (46 CE – c. 116CE) wrote that it was imperative for young men cultivate the art of listening because they must learn to listen to the logos throughout adulthood, and so must learn to distinguish truth from the artifices of flattery or rhetoric. One must listen to the words of the master attentively, so that the logos might penetrate the soul. “The man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect,” Plutarch wrote, “takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation” (On Listening, IV).
Perhaps the most striking of the texts Foucault discussed, however (see The Hermeneutics of the Subject, pp. 343-344), is Philo of Alexandria’s (20 BCE – c. 50 CE) description of the practices of the Therapeutae, a closed community of ascetics who renounced their earthly possessions in order to pursue “perfect happiness,” and the salvation of their soul (De Vita Contemplativa, §12). In his text, Philo takes specific note of the group’s elaborate banquet rituals, during which an elder comes to the fore and gives a discourse on philosophical doctrine or on sacred scripture (“teaching very slowly, lingering and emphasizing with repetitions, engraving the thoughts on the souls” [§76]). During these talks, the audience remained silent and motionless, adopting a precisely prescribed posture intended to fix their attention on the speaker, so that the discourse “does not stay on the tips of the ears, but comes through the hearing to the soul and there remains securely (§31).” In these feasts of silence, mastery of the body is the foundation of the care of the soul.
Though modern Stoic podcasting does not demand nearly this level of physical discipline of its listeners, we are nevertheless encouraged to incorporate podcasting into a daily ritual of silence and reflection – a new, digital feast of silence. As we listen through our headphones, in our cars, or in some other quiet personal space, we are joined in intimate connection with our hosts, who guide us in our contemplation of timeless Stoic wisdoms, engraving these thoughts in our minds so that we might have them ready at hand in order, as Holiday often says, to make them the principle of our actions.
It is this possibility of principled living that is perhaps at the heart of Stoicism’s twenty-first century appeal. As Elizabeth J. Peterson has written, in our age of seemingly perpetual crisis, Stoicism’s resurgence is undoubtedly due to its reputation as a practical guide for surviving difficult times. “Between President Trump, Brexit, the Middle East and the domestic issues in virtually every country,” she writes, “it’s not difficult to see why many people, across the world, need a source of clarity, calm, and fortitude.” (And that was before the pandemic, which occasioned a spate of articles explaining how Stoicism might help us endure a moment of profound uncertainty).
But the headlines aren’t the only source of our anxieties; we have plenty of it in our own lives. At a time of deepening economic precarity, in which we are routinely urged to become self-reliant, self-enterprising subjects in order to maximize our value in the marketplace, Stoicism offers a ready-made coping mechanism with a pedigree of centuries: at once a framework for cultivating emotional resilience, and a self-help paradigm for transforming ourselves into more disciplined, effective, and successful individuals.
When co-opted by late capitalist culture, when marketed as a “life-hack” and configured as an ethics of personal success, then, Stoic principles quite easily align with neoliberal imperatives that we endlessly labor on ourselves in order to better compete in an agonistic struggle for personal fulfillment and economic security. From this perspective, even the advice that we embrace stillness becomes a way of momentarily refreshing ourselves, only to return to work to “persevere” and “succeed.”
One of the most trenchant critiques of Stoicism is that by advising us not to concern ourselves with that which we cannot control (see Epictetus, The Discourses, 2.5.4-5), it is fundamentally a philosophy for living in the world as it exists, and not for challenging it (indeed, Stoicism’s popularity among the Roman elite indicates something of its congeniality with the established order). And while, as Sara Ahmed has written, “neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neoliberalism,” it is nevertheless worth considering how an ostensibly self-directed ascetic practice is complicit in more hegemonic (neoliberal, patriarchal, and misogynistic) templates of subjectivity.
Featured Image: “Marcus Aurelius Headphone Stand!” by JM3is3D @Etsy. Image used for purposes of critique.
Andrew J. Salvati is an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications program at Drew University, where he teaches courses on podcasting and television studies. His research interests include media and cultural memory, television history, and mediated masculinity. He is the co-founder and occasional co-host of Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast, and Drew Archives in 10.
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