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Mr. and Mrs. Talking Machine: The Euphonia, the Phonograph, and the Gendering of Nineteenth Century Mechanical Speech

In the early 1870s a talking machine, contrived by the aptly-named Joseph Faber appeared before audiences in the United States.  Dubbed the “talking head” by its inventor, it did not merely record the spoken word and then reproduce it, but actually synthesized speech mechanically. It featured a fantastically complex pneumatic system in which air was pushed by a bellows through a replica of the human speech apparatus, which included a mouth cavity, tongue, palate, jaw and cheeks. To control the machine’s articulation, all of these components were hooked up to a keyboard with seventeen keys— sixteen for various phonemes and one to control the Euphonia’s artificial glottis. Interestingly, the machine’s handler had taken one more step in readying it for the stage, affixing to its front a mannequin. Its audiences in the 1870s found themselves in front of a machine disguised to look like a white European woman.

Unidentified image of Joseph Faber’s Euphonia, public domain. c. 1870

By the end of the decade, however, audiences in the United States and beyond crowded into auditoriums, churches and clubhouses to hear another kind of “talking machine” altogether. In late 1877 Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, a device capable of capturing the spoken words of subjects and then reproducing them at a later time. The next year the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company sent dozens of exhibitors out from their headquarters in New York to edify and amuse audiences with the new invention. Like Faber before them, the company and its exhibitors anthropomorphized their talking machines, and, while never giving their phonographs hair, clothing or faces, they did forge a remarkably concrete and unanimous understanding of “who” the phonograph was. It was “Mr. Phonograph.

Why had the Euphonia become female and the phonograph male? In this post, I peel apart some of the entanglements of gender and speech that operated in the Faber Euphonia and the phonograph, paying particular attention to the technological and material circumstances of those entanglements. What I argue is that the materiality of these technologies must itself be taken into account in deciphering the gendered logics brought to bear on the problem of mechanical speech. Put another way, when Faber and Edison mechanically configured their talking machines, they also engineered their uses and their apparent relationships with users.  By prescribing the types of relationships the machine would enact with users, they constructed its “ideal” gender in ways that also drew on and reinforced existing assumptions about race and class.

Of course, users could and did adapt talking machines to their own ends. They tinkered with its construction or simply disregarded manufacturers’ prescriptions. The physical design of talking machines as well as the weight of social-sanction threw up non-negligible obstacles to subversive tinkerers and imaginers.

Born in Freiburg, Germany around 1800, Joseph Faber worked as an astronomer at the Vienna Observatory until an infection damaged his eyesight. Forced to find other work, he settled on the unlikely occupation of “tinkerer” and sometime in the 1820s began his quest for perfected mechanical speech. The work was long and arduous, but by no later than 1843 Faber was exhibiting his talking machine on the continent. In 1844 he left Europe to exhibit it in the United States, but in 1846 headed back across the Atlantic for a run at London’s Egyptian Hall.

That Faber conceived of his invention in gendered terms from the outset is reflected in his name for it—“Euphonia”—a designation meaning “pleasant sounding” and whose Latin suffix conspicuously signals a female identity. Interestingly, however, the inventor had not originally designed the machine to look like a woman but, rather, as an exoticized male “Turk.”

“The Euphonia,” August 8, 1846, Illustrated London News, 96.

A writer for Chambers Edinburgh Journal characterized the mannequin’s original appearance in September of 1846:

The half figure of a man, the size known to artists as kit kat, dressed in Turkish costume, is seen resting, upon the side of a table, surrounded by crimson drapery, with its arms crossed upon its bosom. The body of the figure is dressed in blue merino, its head is surmounted by a Turkish cap, and the lower part of the face is covered with a dense flowing beard, which hangs down so as to conceal some portion of the mechanism contained in the throat.

What to make of Faber’s decision to present his machine as a “Turk?” One answer, though an unsatisfying one is “convention.” One of the most famous automata in history had been the chess-playing Turk constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the eighteenth century. A close student of von Kempelen’s work on talking machines, Faber would almost certainly have been aware of the precedent. In presenting their machines as “Turks,” however, both Faber and Von Kempelen likely sought to harness particular racialized tropes to generate public interest in their machines. Mystery. Magic. Exoticism. Europeans had long attributed these qualities to the lands and peoples of the Near East and it so happened that these racist representations were also highly appealing qualities in a staged spectacle—particularly ones that purported to push the boundaries of science and engineering.

Mysteriousness, however, constituted only one part of a much larger complex of racialized ideas.  As Edward Said famously argued in Orientalism Westerners have generally mobilized representations of “the East” in the service of a very specific political-cultural project of self- and other-definition—one in which the exoticized orient invariably absorbs the undesirable second half of a litany of binaries: civilization/barbarism, modernity/backwardness, humanitarianism/cruelty, rationality/irrationality. Salient for present purposes, however is the west’s self-understanding as masculine, in contradistinction to—in Said’s words—the East’s “feminine penetrability, its supine malleability.”

One possible reading of the Faber machine and its mannequin “Turk,” then, would position it as an ersatz woman. A depiction of the Euphonia and its creator, which appeared in the August 8, 1846  Illustrated London News would appear to lend credence to this reading. In it, the Turk, though bearded, features stereotypically “feminine” traits, including soft facial features, smooth complexion and full lips. Similarly, his billowing blouse and turban lend to the Turk a decidedly “un-masculine” air from the standpoint of Victorian sartorial norms. The effect is heightened by the stereotypically “male” depiction of Faber himself in the same illustration. He sits at the Euphonia’s controls, eyes cast down in rapt attention to his task. His brow is wrinkled and his cheeks appear to be covered in stubble. He appears in shirt and jacket—the uniform of the respectable middle-class white European man.

Importantly, the Euphonia’s speech acts did not take place as part of a conversation, but might have been compared to another kind of vocalization altogether. Faber’s manipulation of the Euphonia entailed a strenuous set of activities behind the automaton (though, in truth, off to one side.) Its keyboard kept both of the inventor’s hands occupied at the machine’s “back,” while its foot-operated bellows had to steadily be pumped to produce airflow. Though requiring some imagination, one could imagine Faber and his creation having sex. At least one observer, it seems, did. In an article originally printed in the New York Paper, the author recounted how he “suggested to Mr. F[aber] that the costume and figure had better have been female.” This course of action offered practical mechanical-semiotic advantages “as the bustle would have given a well-placed and ample concealment for all the machinery now disenchantingly placed outside.” To the foregoing the writer added a clause: “—the performer sitting down naturally behind and playing her like a piano.”

Unidentified image of Faber’s Euphonia, public domain. c. 1870. The Euphonia was apparently sometimes exhibited with only the mannequin’s face in place, its body having been dispensed with.

Around 1870 the Euphonia was recast as a woman.  By this time Herr Faber had been dead several years and his talking machine had passed on to a relative, also called Joseph, who outsourced the staged operation of the machine to his wife—Maria Faber. The transition from a male mannequin to a female mannequin (as well as the transition from a male operator to a female operator) throws into relief certain wrinkles in the gendered story of the Euphonia. Given that the Euphonia’s vocalizations could be read through the lens of sexualized domination, why had Faber himself not designed the mannequin as a woman in the first place? There are no pat answers. Perhaps the older, bookish, inventor believed the Turk could serve as an object of Western scientific domination without eliciting embarrassing and prurient commentary. Clearly, he underestimated the degree to which the idea of technological mastery already contained sexual overtones.

Little can be said about Joseph Faber’s life and work beyond 1846 though an entry for the inventor in the Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Österreich claimed that he took his life about 1850. Whatever the truth of Herr Faber’s fate, the Euphonia itself disappeared from public life around this same time and did not resurface for nearly two-and-a-half decades.

On the other hand, the idea of a female-presenting Euphonia, suggested by the New York Paper contributor in 1845, came to fruition as the machine was handed over to a female operator. If audiences imagined the spectacle of Euphonia-operation as a kind of erotic coupling, this new pairing would have been as troubling in its own way as Faber’s relationship to his Turk. What explains, then, the impulse to transition the Euphonia from androgyne to woman? Again, there are no pat answers.  One solution to the enigma lies in the counter-factual: Whatever discomfiting sexual possibilities were broached in the Victorian mind by a woman’s mastery over a female automaton would have been greatly amplified by a woman’s mastery over a male one.

H.H.H. von Ograph “The Song of Mr. Phonograph” (New York: G Shirmer, 1878).

In these early exhibitions, the phonograph became “Mr. Phonograph.”  In Chicago, for example, an exhibitor exclaimed “Halloa! Halloa!” into the apparatus before asking “Mr. Phonograph are you there?” “This salutation,” perspicaciously noted an attending Daily Tribune reporter “might have been addressed with great propriety to the ghosts at a spiritual seance…” In San Francisco, an exhibitor opened his demonstration by recording the message “Good morning, Mr. Phonograph.” Taking the bait, a Chronicle reporter described the subsequent playback: “‘Good morning, Mr. Phonograph,’ yelled Mr. Phonograph.”

In Atlanta, the phonograph was summoned “Mr. Phonograph, will you talk?” Mr. Phonograph obliged [“Wonder Agape!,” The Phonograph Puzzling Atlanta’s Citizens.” The Daily Constitution. June 22, 1878, 4]. At some point in 1878 the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company commissioned the printing of a piece of promotional sheet music “The Song of Mr. Phonograph.” The cover art for the song sheet featured a bizarrely anthropomorphized phonograph. The machine’s iron cylinder has been transformed into a head with eyes, while the mouthpiece and recording stylus have migrated outward and are grasped by two human hands. Mr. Phonograph’s attire, however, leaves no doubt as to his gender: He wears a collared shirt, vest, and jacket with long tails above; and stirrupped pants and dress boots below.

[Animal noises–cat, chicken, rooster, cow bird, followed by announcement by unidentified male voice, From UCSB Cylinder Archive]. Mr. Phonograph appealed not only to the professional exhibitors of the 1870s but to other members of the American public as well. One unnamed phonograph enthusiast recorded himself sometime before 1928 imitating the sounds of cats, hens, roosters and crows. Before signing off, he had his own conversation with “Mr. Phonograph.”

To understand the impulse to masculinize the phonograph, one must keep in mind the technology’s concrete mechanical capabilities. Unlike the Euphonia, the phonograph did not have a voice of its own, but could only repeat what was said to it. The men who exhibited the phonograph to a curious public were not able (like the Fabers before them) to sit in detached silence and manually prod their talking machines into talking. They were forced to speak to and with the phonograph. The machine faithfully addressed its handler with just as much (or as little) manly respect as that shown it, and the entire operation suggested to contemporaries the give-and-take of a conversation between equals. Not surprisingly, the phonograph became a man and a properly respectable one at that. Finally, the all-male contingent of exhibitors sent across the United States by the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 invariably imparted to their phonographs their own male voices as they put the machine through its paces on stage. This, in itself, encouraged attribution of masculinity to the device.

The Euphonia and the phonograph both “talked.” The phonograph did so in a way mechanically-approximating the idealized bourgeois exchange of ideas and therefore “had” to be male. The Euphonia, on the other hand, spoke only as a function of its physical domination by its handler who wrung words from the instrument as if by torture. The Euphonia, then, “had” to be female.

The talking machines of the late nineteenth century as well as the media technologies that succeeded them emerged from a particular white, male, western and middle class culture.While changing in profound ways since the Victorian period, this culture has remained committed to the values of scientific mastery of nature; racial and gender hierarchies; and, especially, economic accumulation. But because the physical apparatus of talking machines has evolved so dramatically during this same period, it has been necessary to periodically renovate the ontology of mechanical speech in order to make it “safe” for the core values of the culture.

A fuller accounting of the politics of sound reproduction is possible but it depends on a more dynamic rendering of the interplay between practices, technologies and sonic understandings. It requires not only identifying speakers and listeners, but also placing them within the broader networks of people, things and ideas that impart to them moral content. It means attending—no less so than to texts and other representations—to the stories machines themselves tell when they enact the labor of speaking. We should listen to talking machines talking. But we should watch them as well.

Featured Image: from William C. Crum, ”Illustrated History of Wild Animals and Other Curiosities Contained in P.T. Barnum’s Great Travelling World’s Fair….” (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1874) 73. This image suggests that the later exhibitors of the Euphonia may have occasionally deviated from the gendered norms established by Joseph Faber, Sr. In image 4, a man—perhaps Joseph, Jr.— operates the Euphonia in its female form.

J. Martin Vest holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in American History from the University of Michigan. His research interests range across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and are heavily influenced by the eclecticism and curiosity of working class storytelling. Past projects have explored Southside Virginia’s plank roads; the trope of insanity in American popular music; slavs in the American South; radical individualist “egoism;” twentieth century anarchists and modern “enchantment.” My dissertation, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1870-1930,” charts the peculiar evolution of modern ideas about recorded sound, paying particular attention to the role of capitalism and mechanical technology in shaping the things said and believed about the stuff “in the grooves.”


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The Magical Post-Horn: A Trip to the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale–Leslie McMurtry

How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent–Gayle Wald

The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration

On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).

Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.

One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.

These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).

Clara Rockmore playing the theremin, publicity shot c. 1930s

When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.

Close-Up of “Figure 1109,” Image by Flickr User Theremin Player

Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.

Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.

Paul Robeson and Clara Rockmore

Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.

Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.

Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.

Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)

Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.

 

Shoo bop shoo bop, my baby, ooooo: W.E.B. Du Bois, Sigmund Freud & Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke SinitiereKristin MoriahAaron Carter-ÉnyìAustin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Julie Beth Napolin brings her trilogy to a close, exploring the echoes of black maternal sounding and listening she has amplified in Du Bois in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning film Moonlight (2016).

Essay One: Listening to and as Contemporaries: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

Essay Two:  (T)racing Mother Listening: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


The theory of the acousmatic—the idea of a sound whose source is unseen, as it comes to us from Barthes, Chion, and Dolar—rests upon the mother tongue and the Oedipal scene, the dyad of mother and father. There is in “Do ba – na co – ba”–his great- great- grandmother’s song Du Bois remembers hearing passed down through his family–a transmission from the mother, but what kind of transmission? “There is no one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage,” Hartman writes in “Venus in Two Acts” (3). History becomes, she continues, a project of “listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words” (3-4). The word-sounds “Do ba-na co-ba” are not the translation of a misconstrued word and they bolster a song of survival, of living on.  But there is a silence there. “Do ba-na co-ba,” in a manner of speaking, survives the Middle Passage, and re-opens it as a primary channel of listening and receiving.

The Bantu woman was Du Bois’ grandfather’s grandmother, so many generations removed.

Returning to the vestiges of black motherhood in recent black cinema (including Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight), Rizvana Bradley argues that the loss of the mother “in black life more generally, as it repeats through cycles of material loss, … encapsulates racial slavery’s gendered social afterlife” (51). Bradley’s essay is crucial in retrieving the figure of the lost mother even in moments when the mother is absolutely elided as a character, not to appear visually. Horror more generally owes its immersive quality to the womb (enclosed spaces), but Bradley turns to black film form in particular to find in its mise-en-scène (such as in the gravitational field of the “sunken place”) maternal flesh and form.

In the compositional and formal strategies of The Souls of Black Folk, in the punctuated silences that open each chapter, there is a trace of the elided black maternal. The Bantu woman is lost not because Du Bois did not know her (he could not have), but because something of her song transmits a loss and theft that were not symbolic, but literal—a stolen and kidnapped maternal, rather than simply destroyed, as in the Oedipal mandate. It is crucial that the song that is at the core of Du Bois’ memory is transmitted along the maternal line. This maternal voicing is the unspoken wound of Du Bois’ text.

Spillers begins “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” from the premise of non-Oedipal psycho-biographies, and these include not only the single mother, but the kidnapped mother. The quotation marks that surround the figure of the “black woman” for Spillers are “so loaded with mythical prepossession” that the agents it conceals cannot be clarified. Spillers takes particular aim at the infamous conclusions of the Moynihan report of 1965 that trace the roots of African American poverty to the figure of the single mother, the underachievement of lower class black males being linked in the report to black women.

In this way, black culture is thought to operate in a matriarchal pattern essentially out of step with a majority culture where a child’s identity and name, by definition, cannot be determined by the maternal line (66). As Lacan insists, it is the Father who gives a child both the Name and the symbolic Law (language). According to this configuration, Spillers argues, the child of the black mother can only be left in a haunting dis-identity. The implications for psychoanalysis are radical: Spillers begins the essay with a “stunning reversal of the castration thematic,” one that displaces its structure “to the territory of the Mother and Daughter, [and] becomes an aspect of the African-American female’s misnaming” (66). Among these misnamings is that black women are often not seen as “women,” omitted from the category and its political inflections. She is left castrated, politically impotent. For in this displacement, the subject positions of “male” and “female” lose—or fail to adhere to—their traditionally conceived symbolic integrity, and this loss begins with the historical experience aboard ship.

“waves and shadows,” image by Flickr User Albatrail

For Spillers, then, it is essential to trace this misnaming and undifferentiation of black women to the physical and psychic conditions of the Middle Passage. When Freud begins Civilization and Its Discontents, he notes an “oceanic feeling” engendered by religion. The oceanic is the longing for return to a pre-subjective state where one is united with all that is, before the cut that is birth and then language (indeed, the oceanic feeling is often attributed to song). Spillers’ move is to read the oceanic literally and structurally at once: there is the Atlantic Ocean and its Middle Passage. The oceanic, in this way, is de-subjectivating; it casts the subject out of itself in a terror of undifferentiation that does not cease with landfall.

But Spillers also implies that, in that (sexual) undifferentiation, a radical political potential can be retrieved. It is not that black feminism retrieves for her a sexual differentiation after becoming an ambiguous thing. It would not be “woman” in any traditional sense, for that New World category rests upon the violence Spillers seeks to describe. Above all, it would not be easy to name.

Du Bois certainly takes up the Father in his poetic epigraphs. But in ending with the Bantu woman’s song—as it seems to anatomize all of the other songs he describes—Du Bois upholds himself as being named by the maternal line. He is unable or perhaps unwilling to make a clarified place for a black female political agent. If we listen with ear’s pricked, we find that she is the submerged, oceanic condition for his speech.

By way of an open-ended conclusion, we can recall the sound of the ocean that punctuates Jenkin’s stunningly lyrical and psychologically complex coming-of-age film, Moonlight. The ocean provides the anchoring location for the psychological action, but also its aesthetic locus, the beginnings of its cinematic language. The sound of the ocean continually marks a desire for “return” to maternal undifferentiation and oneness, and yet, it provides the space for two embodied memories that cannot be compassed by traumatic separation. In the first, a father-like figure, Juan, embraces a young boy, Little, to allow him to float in a nearly baptismal scene of second birth, and in a second scene at the shore, Little experiences with his friend, Kevin, sexual gratification, a coming into his body as a site of pleasure.

The conclusion of the film posits these moments as being in the past. We had experienced them as contemporary, but only later realize they are a well of memory for a now-adult subject who does not know himself. I want to focus, then, on the film’s conclusion, after Kevin and Little (now named Black, his adult re-renaming), meet again after many years. Kevin calls Little/Black on the phone, a defining gesture of reaching out erotically and acousmatically with voices. We later learn that he calls because Kevin has heard an old song that reminded of him of his lost friend. By this voice or call, Black is brought somewhere back to his moment of break to become Little again, as if something in the past must be recuperated for the present. As he drives down the open road to find Kevin, the music of Caetano Veloso soars.

We can’t be sure if this is extra-diegetic or diegetic music. To be sure, Black would never listen to such a song on his stereo. And yet, the song seems to emanate directly from its affective space. In the language of literature, it is a “free-indirect style,” part character and part author; the film is hearing Black/Little feel. He’s in a space of haunting melody, drenched in personal memory, whose principle scene had been the Florida shore, the ocean lapping providing a (maternal) containing motif for the film, now transmuted into song.

The oceanic, Spillers might remind us, is violent, echoing the passages that made it possible for these two black boys to be there. But the sound is also amniotic, a space of maternal longing, particularly for a character who, in Bradley’s estimation, is positioned as pathological, injured by the missing mother who is, in turn, indicted by the film’s imaginary. To some extent, Moonlight participates in the mother’s misnaming: it cannot see the structures that ensure her lostness. But the film does also push towards some mode of melancholia that, as Michael B. Gillespie argues of Jenkins’ earlier work, would cease to be depressive. Jenkins’ aesthetic practice is transformative, Gillespie suggesting that we use Flatley’s term, “antidepressive melancholia,” as it’s with a stake in the personal past but turned towards the collective future (106).

When the two boys, now men, meet again, several sounds punctuate the scene. They are not words or even phonemes, yet “speak” to provide a sonic geography of feeling that includes or “holds” the viewer, as Ashon Crawley might suggest. Among them is the sound of the bell on the door, which marks hello and goodbye, entry and exit, coming and going (­or “fort-da” in Freud’s lexicon). When Black enters the diner, he is still “Black.” It is only when remembering what happened at the shore, then to say that no man has touched him since, that he becomes Little. He discloses this truth on behalf of a potential in present and a still-nascent future. Kevin cooks for Black, and Jenkins’ is careful to amplify the sound of the spoon stirring. He provides for Black, the film locating Kevin, a male, within the coordinates of maternal care. The sonic crux of the scene—no longer primal, no longer traumatic—is when Kevin plays the song on the jukebox that had drawn him to call to Little/Black in the first place. “Hello, stranger,” Barbara Lewis croons, “it seems like a mighty long time. Shoo bop shoo bop, my baby, ooooo.”

In listening to a song that is from our past, Newtonian time collapses, a shock running from past to present. The film never discloses whether these two had once heard this song together before. It is more likely that its affective map impacts Kevin, that he hears in its melancholic sound a nascence, and with it, a longing to retrieve his own past and repair. Lewis herself, singing in the sixties, is a recalling an already eclipsed fifties doo-wop. The phonemes circle back to their beginnings in “Do ba- na co-ba.” Such sounds are to be opposed to the shot of Little’s mother yelling at him (presumably a slur). There, the sound had cut out of the scene, which recurs for Little in a traumatic nightmare.

In contrast to that violent naming, the boys’ intimacy was defined by, to use Kevin Quashie’s term, “quiet,” a sense of interiority Michael Gillespie explores in his analysis of Jenkins’ first feature film, Medicine for Melancholy.  Shakira Holt and Chris Chien called this dynamic in Chiron and Juan’s relationship “silence as a form of intimate conversance” in their 2017 post about Moonlight.  There is a queer intimacy revived apart from trauma, triangulated by a black woman’s voice, paired with male harmonies, that resonate acousmatically from the jukebox to hold and contain the scene. For psychoanalytic theories of voice, containment is the essential maternal gesture of song.

We begin to wonder what might be possible for the feminine were it to be separated from the maternal dimension, a potential that Jenkins does not explore in this particular film in his oeuvre (as he does in Medicine for Melancholy, for example); each of the women in Moonlight “mother” to some extent. Nonetheless, he disperses the maternal function across male and female subjects, particularly in moments when the film resists depression. In listening with ears pricked, as with Du Bois’ epigraphs, the voices cease to belong to an individual, to be male voices or female voices, but become plural and pluralistic. It becomes possible to ground a politics of listening to the past for remaking in the present in that sound.

 

I would like to thank Michael B. Gillespie, Amanda Holmes, and Jennifer Stoever for their incredible scholarly assistance and comments in writing this essay trilogy.

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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Poptimism and Popular Feminism

Almost 20 years ago, 2 Many DJs and Freelance Hellraiser each released too-clever mashups that laid R&B pop diva vocals over indie rock instrumentals, revealing that the paired songs had exactly the same compositional structure. The former’s “Smells Like Booty” put Destiny’s Child together with Nirvana, and the latter’s “A Stroke of Genius” combined Christina Aguilera with The Strokes. The mashups were clever because they flouted supposedly commonsense views that these these pairings shouldn’t work: how could something as superficial, formulaic, and, frankly, girly as Destiny’s Child and Aguilera have anything in common with something as serious and aggressive as Nirvana and The Strokes? Writing in 2009, Dorian Lynskey explained that “A Stroke of Genius came out when many indie fans still believed that manufactured pop stank of evil and death, and the idea of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes in perfect harmony was strange.” Note Lynskey’s use of the past tense: by 2009, the gatekeepers of elite musical taste generally agreed that commercial, chart-oriented music whose fans were at least thought to be mainly teen girls and/or gay men could be just as artistically valuable as rock and hip hop.

“Tricoteuse” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Public Domain

That consensus has a name: poptimism. Poptimism upends the hierarchy between rock (and sometimes hip hop) and pop, which is a contemporary variation on a very old hierarchy that privileged fine art over craft. Back in the 18th century, philosophers like Immanuel Kant invented the idea of “fine art” by distinguishing it from craft: craft is subordinate to utility (you don’t want your coffee mug to leak), but art exists for its own sake (think of how unwearable some high fashion is, or of Rosemarie Trockel’s art sweaters). As many feminist art historians have argued, this art/craft hierarchy conveniently maps onto patriarchal gender hierarchies: art, like men, is autonomous, whereas craft, like women, are subordinate to daily needs; art is productive, craft is reproductive. For example, art historians Roziska Parker and Griselda Pollock have shown that there is an “intersection in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the development of an ideology of femininity…with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft.” The conceptual and institutional structures that confined women to reproductive labor and craft into the service of life’s reproductive needs were manifestations of the same underlying gender system.

“Jennifer Lopez | Pop Music Festival | 23.06.2012” by Flickr user Ana Carolina Kley Vita, CC BY 2.0. A Google image search of the word “pop music” listed this image as one of the top images.

This same system informs the traditional rock-over-pop hierarchy. In her 2001 article “Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular,” Susan Cook argues that “‘the popular’…has been so thoroughly feminized” and “carries with it a staggering cultural baggage, a trunk full of social codes that have been historically attached to womankind and underprivileged men.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, the distinction between rock and pop was largely grounded in the same gender system that organized the art/craft hierarchy: rock embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal masculinity, and that’s why it was superior, whereas pop embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal femininity, and that’s why it was inferior. In the early 2000s, poptimism revises this gender script, putting “thoroughly feminized” pop on an equal playing field with rock. However, instead of more-or-less uncritically cheerleading for pop and/or pop stars, we should be thinking about the institutions and conventions that dole out artistic status.

“Rock Hard Open Air 2009” by Flickr user Elena, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 article “The Rap Against Rockism” brought the fact of rock-conceived-as-art to the general public’s attention. “Rockism” is the idea that rock music is the only kind of commercial recorded music that has artistic merit. According to Sanneh,

rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices…The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.

Grounded in the idea that rock is superior because it is both made by and for white dudes and expresses the stereotypical features of elite white masculinity, rockism upgrades the gendered (and raced) logics of the fine art/craft distinction into 20th century terms. Meanwhile, poptimism revalues the aspects of pop music that were traditionally de-valued because of their association with stereotypical (often white) femininity: pop is hugely collaborative and rarely written by lone authors; it prioritizes pleasure over deep meaning, beauty and spectacle over substance; its music and its ideas are supposedly simple rather than complex…you get the idea. (Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos explains the gendered implications of poptimism in more depth in this piece about the role of misogyny in critiques of poptimism.)

Sanneh’s article kicked off this millennial round of poptimism, but poptimism’s basic ideas and values go all the way back to the 19th century (which is much later than Michael Kramer argues here). Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of German composer Richard Wagner uses the same basic framework we now call poptimism: Wagner, he argued, was too concerned with deep philosophical meaning and not enough with the beauty and pleasure of the sounds. Saying things like “music is a woman” and that Italian opera is superior to German opera because it’s prettier and more fun (see The Gay Science sections 77-80), Nietzsche also recognized the gender and race dynamics of poptimism: by 19th century standards Italians weren’t fully white, so his prioritization of Italian over German opera subordinates white highbrow culture to not-really-white middle-to-lowbrow culture. In Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he makes his preference for light, unserious art over high culture quite clear. There, he contrasts the “hubbub…with which the ‘cultured’ man and the man about town allow themselves to be forced through art, literature, music, and with the help of intoxicating liquor, to ‘intellectual enjoyments’” with the “nimble, volatile, divinely undisturbed, divinely artificial art, which blazes up like pure flame into a cloudless sky” (emphasis mine). This contrast flips fine art/craft hierarchies and argues that things traditionally devalued as feminine, such as superficiality or sensory pleasure, are artistically superior to all the values commonly attributed to fine art, such as intellectual depth. Though he called it “the joyful wisdom” (die frӧliche Wissenschaft, often translated as The Gay Science) instead of “poptimism,” the later Nietzsche’s music aesthetics articulates the same basic theoretical commitments that inform 21st century poptimism.

The basic idea of poptimism has been around since the late 1880s, but it took more than a century to really take off. In the decade after Sanneh’s article, there was a poptimism bubble: it rose to huge popularity, especially with the publication of Carl Wilson’s 2007 book on fans of cheesy pop music. That bubble started to burst about 9 or 10 years after that book appeared as critics began to sour on poptimism. Though it was initially understood as a radical upheaval of the powers that be, by 2017 poptimism had been co-opted by those powers. Instead of challenging patriarchal gender systems, poptimism reinforced them. Writing in The Quietus, Michael Hann argues that “Poptimism, in practice, has not meant championing those who do not get the acclaim they are due, so much as celebrating the position of artists who don’t need their genius proclaimed” such as Beyonce or Taylor Swift. The oft-noted death of the negative album review suggests that [p]optimism is now the orthodox practice among music critics. (This also coincides with recent trends in academic literary theory, which prize “reparative” readings over critical ones.) Such concerns have led Rob Harvilla to pose the rhetorical question “Have we reached the end of poptimism?” because what began as a feminist revolt now feels like an expectation or obligation to stan for the already powerful, such as corporations and megastars. Hann and Harvilla observe a change in poptimism, at least as it is practiced in the music media and industry: poptimism feels less like rooting for undervalued and underrepresented women and more like cheerleading for The Man. Harvilla speculates about poptimism’s end because this corporate poptimism betrays the movement’s original ideals and values.

Why did the poptimism bubble happen when it did? There were many contributing factors, such as the rise of what sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern call “omnivorous taste,” which is the idea that elites prefer both traditional highbrow culture and a range of lowbrow forms, a.k.a. “I like everything but [usually country or hip hop].” Evolutions in feminist media and activism are another central cause of the poptimist bubble. Because pop is an inherently gendered category defined by its feminization, poptimism’s evolution is closely tied to feminism’s. The poptimism bubble roughly coincides with the period when feminism broke the mainstream and mutated into popular feminism.

This is more than just a correlation or coincidence. “Pop” is a gendered category, so its evolution is inextricably tied to evolving gender norms and politics. Poptimism emerged at the dawn of a broader “woke” turn in popular media and pop culture. The first decades of the 21st century saw the rise of a proliferation of explicitly feminist web publications (Autostraddle, Broadly, Jezebel, etc.) and the circulation of feminist theory outside the academy on social media sites like tumblr. 2014, the year Beyonce brought the big pink “FEMINIST” sign to the VMAs, was the year that feminism broke the mainstream. As media studies scholar Sarah Banet-Wesier argues, around 2014 a variety of white liberal feminism focused primarily on individual economic (and sexual) empowerment; it “became a sort of product” that circulated both as a corporate and individual brand. “Feminism” sold us Tshirts, Spotify playlists, and a couple of Beyonce albums. Banet-Weiser’s term for this feminism as brand or business strategy is “popular feminism.” In 2018, poptimism works more or less like popular feminism: it turns the revaluation of things traditionally devalued because of their femininity into a way to make money.

Screenshot from Beyoncé’s 2014 VMAs performance.

Both popular feminism and corporate poptimism are the result of the same flawed thinking that believes inequality can be fixed just by empowering individuals and not by restructuring the institutions and conventions that structure our relations with one another. This thinking seeks to put formerly low-status things in high status places without reconfiguring the underlying fact that there is a status differential in the first place. 

Banet-Weiser warns that popular feminism is only half of a two-sided coin: “popular misogyny…mimics the operation of popular feminism but flips and distorts the politics.” The incel movement is an example of popular misogyny: arguing that women oppress men by refusing to have sex with them, it takes the language of oppression developed by feminism and uses it to justify the idea of patriarchal sex-right. Similarly, the classical music blog “Slipped Disc” has been described as the “Breitbart of classical music” because its championing of the orthodox Western art music canon is “openly sexist, racist, and LGBT-phobic.” The 2018 Grammy Awards show presented both sides of this coin in stark clarity: as Maura Johnston noted, though the ceremony prominently featured a #MeToo performance from Kesha and other women artists, almost all the awards went exclusively to men.

Screenshot of Kesha’s performance of “Praying” at the 2018 Grammys.

Viewed in Banet-Weiser’s terms, the RIAA seems to be leveraging both sides of this coin to maximize its profits, practicing popular feminism in the streets but popular misogyny on the ballot. Like popular feminism, the RIAA’s poptimism values superficial markers of feminist progress because they obscure patriarchy’s retrenchment. For example, the two most definitive or canonical poptimist texts (the Sanneh article and Wilson book) are authored by cis men, so it may appear that poptimism hasn’t changed those institutions and conventions so much as conformed to them.

I agree with Banet-Weiser that though Feminism™ is certainly limited and insufficient, it can be a helpful gateway for beginners. Poptimism™ is similarly limited and insufficient, but we should think about how we can lead fans brimming with that kind of poptimism to a deeper engagement with the institutions and conventions that continue to value the same kinds of people and the music they make and like above others.

Featured image: “Pop” by Flickr user Andreas Andrews, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

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