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Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death

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This past summer 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Warsaw and delivered an unplanned statement on the brutal police shooting deaths of two black men that had just occurred within one day of each other, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Obama was speaking from afar on the structural relationship between two events that should trouble “all of us Americans.” Obama spoke pointedly to the fact of “racial disparity” in police shootings and in the justice system more broadly.

Since November 2016, it has felt as though a space of sanctioned public discourse—still in the making since Reconstruction—has once again become smaller and, in a manner of speaking, unhearing. Quite simply, Obama’s statement meant that identification could not compass the ground of an imagined community. A white listener could not say, as with gun violence in general, “he speaks of someone who could have been me, therefore I am troubled.”  Again, identification with white experience asserts itself as the ground of “we.”

The death of Sterling had been captured on cellphone video that showed the police holding him down before shooting him. The video was taken by a store owner who was friendly with Sterling. The ground of a white viewer’s identification is here easily acceded.  That viewer might say to him or herself, “I too could know someone who I don’t believe is violent or dangerous; I too might wish to protest or prevent his or her unjust murder.”

still from cell phone video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

still from cell phone video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

The shooting of Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez was not captured on video; there is no visual evidence of the event made by a bystander. Instead, Castile’s dying moments were captured on live video stream by his girlfriend, a black woman, Diamond Reynolds, who orally narrated the immediate aftermath of the event while it was happening.  There was no rescue that could have been attempted by Reynolds. Even though Castile was alive and Reynolds’s daughter sat in the back seat, the effort immediately—and of necessity—turned to testimony. The camera—but also narration, putting into words the event that was still unfolding—afforded Reynolds and her daughter some measure of protection against the officer’s gun still aimed in the car. Reynolds no doubt imagined the recording would be used as evidence in a court of law. If she herself did not survive the event, the recording would have already been seen by a public and archived by live stream; her voice would still testify within it.

What does it mean, on an ethical level, for a black woman to narrate the spectacle of a black death? What does it mean for me, a white woman, to listen to that narrative or read a transcription, knowing that I will never be called upon to narrate the death of my loved one while it is happening, and then to write of it, to narrate it to you?

To feel emotionally impacted by an image of another person, Kaja Silverman argues, is to imaginatively project oneself into the visual field. This identification for Silverman can be fractured, multiplied and redirected in ways that richly expand the parameters of ethical life; but at base, one must be able to project oneself into the image.

still image from Diamond Reynold's live video feed of Jeronimo Yanez's shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile , Cropping by JS, SO!

still image from Diamond Reynold’s live video feed of Jeronimo Yanez’s shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, Cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

In contrast, testimony is to assert that some juridical order has been perverted for an individual and to seek adjudication.  But it is also to critique the boundaries of public life: it is to insist that to listen to or receive a narrative is to recognize an another who is not—and could never be—you. To recognize another is to affirm the singularity of the other’s life, a life that has been or can be lost or brutalized. Identification cannot be the sole ground of political action around unjust death: one must be able to say to oneself, “that was not me; that could not have been me; someone singular has been lost; I am troubled nonetheless.”

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman shows how 19th century white abolitionist sentiment was first organized by the spectacle of the black body in pain. White abolitionists often recounted the feeling of “what if that were me?” or “what if that were my family?” Hartman shows how the black body in American life takes on what she calls “fungible” form. If as a commodity, that body must be exchanged, then as spectacle, that body must also be a projective screen for identification where the white viewer emplaces him or herself in order to feel sympathy or outrage. Such sentiment, Hartman insists, is merely feeling for oneself.

Much of the recent discourse surrounding viral videos of black death has concerned looking or “not looking,” or what Alexandra Juhasz calls in a recent essay on her decision not to watch Reynolds’s video, “surfeit images.” But these are not simply images—they are narratives and testimonies. Later in this post, I return to what it means to speak of a “voices” in this context—some of them written and some of them mediated by retelling.

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Diamond Reynolds narrating after her camera falls, instagram screen capture by author

Diamond Reynolds narrating after her camera falls, Instagram screen capture by author

A long history of black women’s acts of testimony is occluded in the emphasis on the newness of the new media event and the “convergence” it affords. As Juhasz notes, new media scholar Henry Jenkins describes convergence as the spreading of media events across mediums and formats. Juhasz felt “compelled to join the fray of discourse that surrounds, reproduces and amplifies the video I have not yet seen.” She describes the sense of “knowing” the video without watching because of its convergence across platforms as well as its historical repetition. But convergence is, in the term long afforded by literary discourse, a narrative.  Reynolds told the story in real time; one person may have watched the video, in full or in fragments, and told the story of the event in a status update, in conversation, or in a text message. The convergence relates Reynolds’s live stream to a long history of testimony, testifyin’(g), and unofficial or counter-history that has long been held by both oral and print culture across the black diaspora. It is how one “knows” in advance that Castile’s death is “like” so many others before him.

But this advance sense of “knowing” overleaps the singular voice that mediated the video of a singular death. To feel oneself to know in advance is to have internalized, but then occluded, the other. I say this because convergence is premised upon fungibility. Reynolds’s narrating voice is “like” many voices before hers; she occupies a place in a long historical field. At the same time, the singular always interrupts fungibility as an untenable ground of ethical life.  Quite simply, the choice is as follows: you can avert your gaze and still participate in public outrage, but you’re missing something important if you don’t listen or attend to narrative, if you don’t amplify its particular domain.

When Reynolds narrated what was happening in the car at that moment—when that narrative is again repeated by people who watched or read of it, as I am now—an alternate and urgent relation is demanded by the narrating voice: neither projection nor identification, but recognition. In this post, I want to explore how this is the case. I will bring to the discussion my understanding of what has long been a concern in American literary studies, one that corresponds to the entry of black women into American literature and public discourse: testimony. Under what conditions have black women been called upon to testify and how does this kind of testimony get mediated?

Image by Flickr User Johnny Silvercloud, Taken 15 November 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Flickr User Johnny Silvercloud, Taken 15 November 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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On September 24, 2016, the New York Times released a cellphone video of the death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Police shot Lamont outside of his car. The police claimed–and continue to claim–that he was holding a gun. Several videos from different vantage points have emerged since Lamont’s death.  The presentation of videos mainly confirms a contemporary epistemic and ethical relationship to the visual, a new twist on an old sensory formation that continues to organize American social and political life. Repeatedly, people express a hope, or the belief, that some angle or some vantage correctly adjoined to another angle alone will answer the questions of “what happened?”

President Obama has called for more body cams for police, the underlying logic being that, if recorded, police brutality will become more preventable as it becomes more officially visible. However, the issue remains that the relationship to visual evidence always-already concerns the racist optic that organizes the black male body for a white gaze in advance as “threat.” Judith Butler, writing in 1993 of the Rodney King trial in the essay “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” in the Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising anthology, reminds us that “The visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme” (17).

This post does not focus on the urgent question of how white supremacy has historically marshaled the black male body within the racialized regime of the visible. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jackie Wang are among those who have provided recent and pivotal accounts that orient me as I write.

Instead, I want to shift our contemporary conversation about white supremacy, racist policing, and black life and death by addressing the ethical place of black women’s voices as they narrate the spectacle of black death. The question is not, can black death be seen within a white optic? I think the answer is no, it cannot. Time and again, the amassment of images insists that no amount of video footage can or will change the optic. Race is no doubt a visible artifact.

Can hearing differently augment and change its regime?

Jennifer Stoever has recently asked after “the sonic color line” as a rejoinder to W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 insistence in The Souls of Black Folk that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” (3).  The problem of a line or threshold suggests the possibility of crossing and, with it, amalgamation. For Du Bois, the need and demand for crossing moves in one direction: the white consciousness should experience, not what it is to live as a black consciousness, but that her own consciousness, indeed very life, is inextricably bound to the other it repudiates.  For Du Bois, this transformation–even in the act of writing—was intimately linked to song and narrative. Stoever reminds us that, though writing, he implored his reader to “hear” him.

As I sifted through the news in the weeks following Scott’s death, I kept returning to this question: what does it mean for the voices of black women to become politically audible and intelligible as narrators in a society that still insists on identification as the only ground for ethical life? At the same time, what does it mean for a black woman to become a voice for another, to survive a death and tell the story where another cannot?

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism.

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. Image by Flickr User The All Nite Images, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The majority of the police brutality that has received widespread public scrutiny is the visible violence against black males. As the #sayhername hashtag was meant to illustrate, black women are more invisible as subjects of racist violence. When Castile was bleeding out in silence, Reynolds took the camera and became his voice for him. The ground was suddenly shifted away from the visibility, toward audibility. I include within its matrix the significance of Sandra Bland who, using her phone’s video camera, orally narrated her own arrest in her own voice.

In the U.S., white supremacy has attempted to make black voices historically inaudible as historical agents: slaves (not being citizens) were not originally allowed to testify in court, and even after Emancipation, black litigants could not testify against whites in some states. The demand for extra-juridical testimony has remained constant since slavery and Emancipation and it was the first point of entry for black writers into American literature. But the task of testimony—and making it “heard” in a manner of speaking—has long fallen disproportionally on black women, but this task brings to black women, as I will describe, an important power and ethical charge.

Ida B. Wells, 1893, Courtesy of the US National Portrait Gallery

Ida B. Wells, 1893, Courtesy of the US National Portrait Gallery

In 1895, Ida B. Wells wrote A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. The pamphlet provides statistics (the number of lynchings listed under year and purported crimes), but also narratives of specific events. In the Preface by Frederick Douglass, he writes, “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge.” She tells one story of a lynch mob coming to a house where a black man accused of a crime was being held while still with his family. As you read, I want to ask “where” Wells is as a speaker is and by what authority:

…that night, about 8 o’clock, a party of perhaps twelve or fifteen men, a number of whom were known to the guards, came to the house and told the Negro guards they would take care of the prisoners now, and for them to leave; as they did not obey at once they were persuaded to leave with words that did not admit of delay.

The woman began to cry and said, “You intend to kill us to get our money.” They told her to hush (she was heavy with child and had a child at her breast) as they intended to give her a nice present. The guards heard no more, but hastened to a Negro church near by and urged the preacher to go up and stop the mob. A few minutes after, the shooting began, perhaps about forty shots being fired. The white men then left rapidly and the Negroes went to the house. Hamp Biscoe and his wife were killed, the baby had a slight wound across the upper lip; the boy was still alive and lived until after midnight, talking rationally and telling who did the shooting.

He said when they came in and shot his father, he attempted to run out of doors and a young man shot him in the bowels and that he fell. He saw another man shoot his mother and a taller young man, whom he did not know, shoot his father. After they had killed them, the young man who had shot his mother pulled off her stockings and took $220 in currency that she had hid there. The men then came to the door where the boy was lying and one of them turned him over and put his pistol to his breast and shot him again. This is the story the dying boy told as near as I can get it.

Here, testimony is not to tell what happened to Wells herself, but to tell the story where the young boy cannot.

Is this narrative’s ethical stance premised upon identification and fungibility? No, I think not. But it is premised upon self-absencing. Using the strategies of direct discourse and shifts in narrative voice (or the subject of the verb’s mode of action), she absents herself as an “I” or first-person to mediate the story—until the very end: “This is the story the dying boy told as near as I can get to it.” Her written tactics are vivid, and a reader perhaps imagines a scene. But the culmination of the image insistently returns to a voice: the dying boy’s. It is only at the end of the synthetic narrative that she attributes the narrative to him as its witness. She writes in the third-person of an event she did not witness: she has allowed her voice to move around in space – from the site where the warrant was made, to the threshold of the family’s cabin door, on the other side of the door, to the anonymous spaces of rumor, then away from the scene to the church, and back.

I’m reminded of a recently audio performance, The Numbers Station [Red Record], where sound artists Mendi + Keith Obadike sonifed Wells’s statistics, using them as numbers to generate audio frequencies (some of the numbers being below 20 hz, the lowest threshold of human hearing).

In a measured and restrained, yet breathy and resonant tone of voice, Mendi Obadike reads the statistics as Keith Obadike generates and oscillates corresponding tones. It is a study in repetition, as is Wells’s pamphlet (racist crime, Douglass writes, “has power to reproduce itself”). And yet, both the pamphlet and the Obadikes’ performance are a study in the singular: one female voice carries each of the numbers in their signification.

Numbers Station is depleted or exhausted narrative space that asks that no images be conjured. The vocal style is impersonal, to be sure—the performer does not passionately react to the numbers. And yet, it is style that moves the voice into that region of the throat where Roland Barthes found the “grain,” where timbre most resonates. It burrows in the human capacity for timbre as the singularity of every voice that says, “here I am.”

When Roland Barthes asked the famous question, “who speaks?” in “The Death of the Author,” he delighted in the impersonal domain of the literary, wherein writing becomes “an oblique space” no longer tied to the physical voice of the body writing. We can say that a physical guarantee of white life, its freedom of continuation underwrites the death of the author.  In other words, one can die into text, relinquish the tie that binds the first-person to the body writing, and survive those deaths. It was not important for Barthes to ask, “who may die?,” as in who might have the freedom of impersonality, and “who hears?”, as in who has the right to determine the meaning of the utterances. I want to address these questions.

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Video technology means that one can record sound and image simultaneously–video having built in mics–yet cell technology makes video, as sound and image, even more accessible and disseminable. Often, the voices of those holding the cell phone at a distance are also captured, remarking upon what they are witnessing or trying to cognize, or they are simply breathing; these voices become a part of the narrative scene. Cell phone technology enables a new mode of witnessing, one connected to older antecedent technologies: the written word as a form of “voice” for black writers. Yet, there is something even more importantly material that gets lost when one focuses on the image of brutality rather than the narrative agency that can be harnessed by the act of recording. In the case of Reynolds’s video, this narrating is explicit. She puts into words what she is seeing. But this narrating can also be more implicit.

Rakeyia Scott and Keith Lamont Scott

Facebook picture of Rakeyia Scott and Keith Lamont Scott

The video released by the New York Times of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott included the subtitle, as an introductory slide, that “It was recorded by his wife, Rakeyia Scott.” I pressed pause and, like Juhasz, felt myself unable to watch, stopped in my tracks by this matter-of-fact annotation. Scott had had to videotape the murder of her husband. It took some time before I could return to the video itself, but immediately my thoughts return to Reynolds—again, a black woman had been thrust into the position of narrating black death at the hands of a white police officer, while it was unfolding. But I want to insist that the fungible quality is ethically augmented by narrating itself.

In what follows, New York Times reporters Richard Fausset and Yamiche Alcindor transcribe Scott’s audio and summarize the visuals of the video rather than calling upon readers to view or re-view the video itself. I am choosing to provide the summary report—a narrative—in order to underscore the types of social and sensory positions that get taken up when one tells a story (in this case, it is a narrative of a narrative, since Rakeyia Scott is already positioned in the video as its participant-narrator). This account is not “what happened”—it is a narrative that tries to synthesize audio-visual information into a narrative form. If I also choose to repeat the narrative, rather than the video, it is in alignment with Hartman’s ethical insistence that to repeat the spectacle of death is to reify it, as when she choose not to quote Douglass’ narrative of witnessing the beating of his Aunt Hester in the introduction to Scenes of Subjection. Fred Moten, in In the Break, rightly suggests in response that to turn away from an image is still to be caught up in its imaginary reproduction.

I want the reader to focus on how the Times’s narrative conjures the scene while also involving certain decisions about what sensory data to include as internal to the logical order of events, harnessing adjectives, adverbs, and certain sensorial details. It is one platform of convergence:

Immediately, Ms. Scott said, “Don’t shoot him,” and began walking closer to the officers and Mr. Scott’s vehicle. “Don’t shoot him. He has no weapon. He has no weapon. Don’t shoot him.”

An officer can then be heard yelling: “Gun. Gun. Drop the gun.” A police S.U.V. with lights flashing arrived, partly obscuring Ms. Scott’s view, and a uniformed officer got out. From that point, there are five officers, most of whom appeared to be wearing body armor over plain clothes, around Mr. Scott.

“Don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him,” Ms. Scott pleaded, her voice becoming louder and more anxious. “He didn’t do anything.”

Officers continued to yell “drop the gun” or some variation of it — at least 12 times in 38 seconds.

“He doesn’t have a gun,” Ms. Scott said. “He has a T.B.I.” — an abbreviation for a traumatic brain injury the lawyers said Mr. Scott sustained in a motorcycle accident in November. “He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.”

“Drop the gun,” an officer screamed again as Ms. Scott tried to explain her husband’s condition. The officer then said he needed to get a baton.

“Keith don’t let them break the windows. Come on out the car,” Ms. Scott said, as the video showed an officer approaching Mr. Scott’s vehicle.

“Drop the gun,” an officer shouted again.

Ms. Scott yelled several times for her husband to “get out the car,” but on the video, he cannot be seen through the window of the S.U.V.

kls

still image from Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police shooting of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott. Cropping/blurring by JS, SO!

The above summary reproduces on the page how Scott’s speaking voice suddenly thrust her into a position of addressing several auditors. In listening to the video, I can hear that she modifies her tone of voice to communicate to each addressee, speaking alternately in an imitate imploring tone to her husband and with sharper emphasis to the police. The tone of voice is also linguistic—the diction changes as the addressee changes (“Come on out the car” is so intimate and familiar to my ear somehow, a private grammar and tone suddenly thrown into the public space). She calls the police, “you guys,” which strikes me as an attempt to tone them down, as it were, to bring them back into a human sphere from which they’d removed themselves.  “Ms. Scott tried to explain her husband’s condition”—I add this emphasis, because I think the journalist is channeling here the ways in which Rakeyia Scott is not being heard.

In narrating the scene of her husband’s death, Rakeyia Scott becomes the absolute tie between that past of the image and the present of watching; I use the present tense, because it happens again, with each telling.  Scott speaks, more silently and spectrally, to the audiences that will later watch and listen to the video she is recording, or read the transcript as synthesized by journalists or other viewers. In holding the camera, she imputes to herself a third voice as narrator, as did Wells in narrating the scene in A Red Record. This third voice, I am suggesting, is inaudible. It hovers next to her words with new force because, in the act of recording itself, she is testifying, offering a synthetic view as to reality.  She creates a hearing space even though it is being foreclosed around her.

She is the only party in the scene who speaks to all addressees at once: her husband, the police, and “us.” The police do not respond to her directly, as if she not there. Indeed, she is standing somewhere outside of the scene as would a narrator. Because Rakeyia Scott holds a camera–outside of the frame–while also speaking, something of testimony gets activated. She has one foot outside of the event in the future after the video.  She courageously separates herself from what is unfolding in order to constitute a narrative of the event; she mediates the scene. She not only puts into words facts that are not visible to the police, she issues pleas, commands, and words that carry the explanatory force of narrative, but also testimonial force because she holds the recording device.

still from the NYT's publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT‘s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

By holding a camera, Scott directs her words not only to police, but toward a yet-to-be constituted audience. The recording device also activates the presence of a juridical gaze. She anticipates having to bring this event, not yet fully unfolded, before a court of law. But at the same time, her use of the recording device reveals the juridical sensorium as white. The device’s presence indicates that, were Scott to remember and tell the story later in a court of law, her words on their own would not be enough to guarantee their explanatory power. The spectacle of black death cannot, on its own, announce its own truth within a racist optic. She says what the police (and a spectral jurist) refuse to see. She is forced to narrate because her voice is negated by the police, but also for those unknown viewers who will see this later.

still from the NYT's publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT’s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

There is hope, no doubt, that sometime after this scene has come to end, the video will find a place in the civic as a force of enacting law and justice, and above all, change.

At the turn of the last century, Du Bois wrote of “double consciousness” in The  Souls of Black Folk, or the split incumbent upon black American consciousness to see oneself and then, to see oneself as the other sees you, “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” However, in narrating her husband’s death at the hands of American police in 2016, Rakeyia Scott was split in ways that are not fully compassed by double consciousness. This split into three (or more) not only marks the mediating place of black women in the spectacle of black death, but marks another ethical horizon where at issue is not only seeing differently, but hearing differently. As I’ve tried to describe, these ways of hearing are not an identification with (like me), but a recognition of (you are singular).

This is not yet to speak to the collapse of Scott’s voice after her husband’s murder. Continually occupying this position of testifying, Scott bravely maintains her hold on the camera, even when it means capturing her own screams when Charlotte police begin to shoot. She is both forms. Even then, in screaming, her voice retains its narrative power. Horrifyingly, she cannot change the sequence of events. But her voice continues to exist in belated relation to the scene and to the political afterlife of the murder as image.

With the digital, it becomes possible to reduce the space and time of testimony.  With Reynolds, many watched on Facebook Live an event they were powerless to change in its unfolding. With Scott, the police gun shots had not yet taken place. I think the question is, were Rakeyia Scott white, would her words have been pro-active testimony of a not-yet determined event? Her words would have been lent a different power, a power to change events in their unfolding. In America, white testimony and black testimony bear fundamentally different ontological weight.

still from NYT publication of Rakeyia Scott's video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

still from the NYT‘s publication of Rakeyia Scott’s video of the police murder of her husband, Keith Lamont Scott

In repeatedly trying to answer the question whose recurrence haunts me–What does it mean for Scott to have narrated the murder and death of her loved one as it was taking place?–I am thrust up against the sense that we are in a new ethical moment and relation to history when it becomes possible—and necessary—for black women to narrate death to an unknown public as it is unfolding. This includes the moments before their own deaths, such as Korryn Gaines, who was killed by the Baltimore County Police Department in August 2016, in her own apartment while holding her five year old son, who watched and himself suffered a gunshot wound.  Like Reynolds, she broadcast her recordings via Facebook live.

Testimony is usually reserved for some time after the scene, and its hallmark is that it is belated. It must reconstitute a scene we can no longer see. The burden is on the narrating voice to conjure, with persuasion and conviction, the truth of the missing image, so that the story can in fact stand in place of the scene, merging with it on an ontological level.  The live streamed video fundamentally reduces that distance in time, where the narrative now overlays the image, not from outside of it, but within it. They refuse the false juridical narratives that will, in the future, attempt to reframe the image in the name of “fact.”

In the differentiation of the senses, there is the order of the visible and the order of narrating voice that accompanies the image to give it sense, to retell its meaning somehow after. Scott insists on being there to narrate. That is not to suggest that somehow, because Scott speaks, she is more “present.” While the video is meant as future evidence, it also lends a voice of recognition in this ethical sense I have been trying to describe. Scott’s voice is split by the camera. Even if she herself were not to have survived the event, in narrating and taping, she becomes the medium for history (the persistent and unchanging fact of unjust black death). And yet, she is the vehicle for this death that matters in its singularity. She speaks as both, as history and particularity.

In watching and listening, I finally understand something of Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition that speech and action form a fundamental unit. For Arendt, great deeds cannot happen in silence: they must be narrated and accompanied by speech. And yet the scenes Arendt describes couldn’t be more different. This raises the issue of the conditions of narration: it is one thing to be speaking to your fellow citizens in a sanctioned forum. It is another to hold a camera as an officer holds a gun that might very well shoot you too.

Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the national #blacklivesmatter movement in 2013, along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the national #blacklivesmatter movement in 2013, along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

What I’d like to preserve about Arendt’s analytic is the union of speech and action. It is related to the role of the right to speak in the ancient polis, where one had to take responsibility for the possibility that one’s speech might lead to the deeds of the community. But speech, for Arendt, is the function of action that makes it for others, that commits that action to the memories of others who can narrate it. In Arendt’s view, the story does not end there. The fact is, one might not survive one’s greatest deed. If one does survive, it would be in highly transformed terms. It is for others to tell the story.

In part, the ethical bond means our lives are in each other’s hands, that the other is responsible for narrating where you cannot. We are always-already ethically bound as “witnesses and participants,” as Frederick Douglass once described himself in his 1851 Narrative. He remembers himself as a six year old child not only watching, but listening to the scene of brutality against his Aunt Hester that he later recalls and transmutes into a narrative.

My hope is that this power of narrative is in the midst of opening another political horizon. It refutes identification as the untenable ground of ethics and action. We must act—or hold on to a sense of acting, even if its meaning and parameters remain unclear.   As I reach the end of this essay, I can’t shake the sense that that it is not enough to have provided an analytic for understanding these videos and their voices in their long resonance with history.  Nor does it feel right to say that these videos “do” something for us– they, and their narrators, demand that we do something for them.  This mode of action begins in the attitude of hearing. Hearing testimony, Jill Stauffer describes in Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard, means allowing the unchangeable past to resound in the present. Only then can one “author conditions where repair is possible” (4).

It might be, then, that hearing itself is a mode of action, even if that action be much delayed. Hearing becomes action when formal power structures have denied its event as a source of repair. As listeners to the present and the past, we are neither projecting ourselves in the images nor imagining ourselves uninvolved in their scenes of subjection.  We were all already there.  And yet, to be “there” means to allow oneself to be exposed to another’s singular experience, rather than favor a collectively conditioned idea of what is known in advance. Who and where will we be afterward, is what remains.  These videos and their not-yet determined afterlives become louder than the optic, if not in the word than in the sounds.

I’d like to thank Jennifer Stoever, Erica Levin, Jay Bernstein, and Ben Williams for their thoughtful voices and contributions that resound throughout this essay.

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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On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gus Stadler

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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The slaves who were ourselves had known terror intimately, confused sunrise with pain, & accepted indifference as kindness. – Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo

Sanford. Baltimore. Chicago. Staten Island. Charlotte. Cleveland. Oakland. Austin. Los Angeles. The Bronx.

Despair in the United States is nothing new. It is neither an emotion confined to the neatly-drawn borders of this land nor is it experienced more acutely by any one group of people. The vast discrepancy between the results of the popular vote and the electoral college’s selection of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States amply reveals despair to be an sentiment viscerally experienced by a wide swath of people in this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.

Such despair has been ignored, however, by those who have caused and who continue causing the suffering of peoples of both indigenous and, later, African descent.  We are taught that men from what we now recognize as Europe arrived in this hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, settling initially on a strip of earth in the Caribbean Sea that would become the first site of massacre and genocide, acts which unleashed, if one lends credence to the narrator of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fukú, the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The narrating voice himself characterizes the curse not in the actions of death, but in the “screams of the enslaved, [..] the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began […]” (1). The fukú resonated through the sounds that these human beings made.

Image of the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue mural, designed by Osha Neumann, painted in 1976, restored and enlarged in 1999, at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. Image by Flickr user nursenicole329. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Image of the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue mural, designed by Osha Neumann, painted in 1976, restored and enlarged in 1999, at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. Image by Flickr user nursenicole329 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. – Toni Morrison, Beloved

The State’s unwillingness to hold George Zimmerman responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin–and its subsequent refusal to hold any police officer accountable for the hundreds of deaths they have caused–has galvanized the United States in the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children alike have taken to the streets, as #BlackLivesMatter, a true and succinct sentence, has roused ghosts of the past who have never left us, who have always been present, accompanying us on this journey.

This post is not a reflection of the music that has served as a soundtrack to these protests, though there are articles that have done so, such as this one, this one, and this one. These pieces do not include the extensive list of articles that address perhaps the most widely-viewed piece of protest music thus far, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, a scarce offering of which can be found here, here, and here. Instead, it is an essay inspired by the sounds of the protesters themselves, the noises made by the minds, bodies, and spirits of the men, women and children who have taken to public spaces and sometimes commercial zones in order to confront and object to the protections applied to those who kill men, women, and children, often of African descent.

Listen to Los Angeles in 2013. . .

. . .to Houston in 2014. . .

. . .to New York City in 2014. . .

. . .and to Charleston in 2015. . .

. . .

roachIn his pivotal Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach characterized New Orleans and London as urban centers marked by two simultaneous, consistent acts:  appropriation by white people and white power structures of the cultures of the peoples they have violently marginalized, and then, at the same time, a clear distancing from those very cultures and peoples. Although now in its twentieth year of publication, Roach’s theorization of the circum-Atlantic world remains vastly underutilized in scholarly circles—particularly in sound studies, where it should have special resonance– and has become increasingly critical to our understanding of this historical moment, as it “insists on the centrality of the diasporic and genocidal histories of Africa and the Americas, North and South, in the creation of the culture of modernity” (4). With this configuration, Roach accomplishes two feats simultaneously: first, he decentralizes the United States as the focal point of studies about the so-called New World, instead, placing on equal footing all of the histories and cultures of the Americas. For this scholar of the literatures of the Americas, particularly those written by men and women of African descent, Roach’s is a critical gesture that facilitates comparative work across national boundaries.

Second, and most importantly, Roach emphasizes the role of murder, rape and the destruction of whole cultures indigenous to the American and African continents in the foundation of the nations of this hemisphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most recent writer to remind us that the most potent legacy of such modernity, racism, “is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Between the World and Me, 10). That which we know as “modernity,” itself a deeply flawed construct that remains in need of serious revision, was born of broken backs, mutilated limbs, hushed middle-of-the-night tears of indigenous and African peoples. Moans and sighs, whispers and wails, cries and screams, they are the musical score of this hemisphere’s American experiment.

The slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience & unremembered rhythms –Ntozake Shange ­

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Harriet Tubman Memorial Monument, Harlem, Image by Flickr User John Mannion (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In the face of a populace accustomed to ignoring the wailing of mothers who have buried their children, who have disregarded their dignity and the weight and shape and taste of their loss, men, women, and children have mobilized. They have made manifest that which communities of peoples of African descent have spoken of and have documented since the founding of this nation. As Roach has utilized the term performance, the literal rituals of mourning by communities of African heritage not only commemorate those who have recently passed but they also invoke the spirits of those who have long borne witness to such violence. Throughout his study, Roach distinguishes between a European heritage that begins to segregate the living from the dead during the Enlightenment (50), and more traditional cultures, particularly African ones, where spirits mingle with their human counterparts. While written texts may not, and often do not, adequately commemorate the loss of lives deemed marginal to the larger society, performance itself – chants, wails, songs – serve not only to memorialize but also as gestures of restoration.

Protesters and activists are no longer satisfied with the well-established decree that we should wait for a distant moment for a more perfect realization of the United States’s many promises.  No, instead, they have identified this as the historical moment in which those oaths are to be fulfilled. They have walked, marched, and stomped through streets, on sidewalks, parks, churches, filling malls and transportation hubs with their bodies as testimony. They have repossessed and redefined spaces once thought of as simply neutral, transparent space as Katherine McKittrick refers to it in Demonic Grounds, revealing the fault-lines of difference based on class, race, gender, and sexuality in this society (xv). They have done so manipulating sound, both recycling chants used through the decades to protest injustice and, at times, simply occupying space, without a word uttered.

The silence waged in the 2014 protest in Grand Central Terminal after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner does not represent erasure, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the willful humanity of those unwilling to forget.

They quiet themselves. They replace the sounds of unfettered pain and grief with its absence, until all that you hear is the mechanized announcement of train schedules. The contrast is stark: the moment highlights what Claudia Rankine has identified as the condition of black life in Citizen, that of mourning (145), against a backdrop of technological advancement, that which has been built on the backs of and through the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor of black life. Here, the members of this community enact what has been called a “die-in”: simulating the physical positioning of bodies in caskets, they force onlookers to confront an uncomfortable truth about the history of this country and of the nations of this hemisphere.

All of us walk on land soaked in the blood of those who have made our lives easier and more convenient.  The men and women at Grand Central make manifest what Roach terms surrogation: in the chasm left by death, they offer a replacement, one that both evokes those who have died and disturbs the complacency of survivors themselves (2). The performance serves to confront those who dare say that the violence of genocide and enslavement of past generations should remain in the past; no, these men and women and the spirits they invoke respond. Time is not linear, as we have been taught. For past, present, and future are temporal constructs used to service oppression and domination; this will no longer do.

From Kara Walker's 2014 exhibit, "A Subtlety," at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

From Kara Walker’s 2014 exhibit, “A Subtlety,” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. – Toni Morrison

We bear witness to the reclamation of grief, of lives cut short at the hand of a government charged with protecting those human beings who inhabit its borders, at least theoretically. While, as Roach surmises, “memory [may be] a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2), we hold space to those dedicated to not forget, to instead excavate the silences, breathe life into those histories, remembering that the stories we have heard, the pages we have read, were once human beings. We create “counter-memories” as challenge and testimony, as a sacred pledge to those who are no longer present physically in this realm (Roach 26). We recall the cultures and practices of those who lived before the written form was a tool of exclusion, when remembrance was a practice of community.

American culture, in the hemispheric sense, incorporates all such rituals, across generations; as Roach notes, it is performance that “works on behalf of living memory, by bringing the parties together as often as necessary” (138). No longer consigned to the past, the spirits of those killed by the state are revived, their existences in the human plain celebrated. They are not defined by how they died but instead by how they lived. While literacy of the written form can separate, sound and gesture more effectively bypass the fictions of difference based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Cities of the Dead amplifies how “performance can articulate what otherwise may not be properly communicated” (161).

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Image of the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue mural, designed by Osha Neumann, painted in 1976, restored and enlarged in 1999, at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. Image by Flickr user nursenicole329 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

It’s so magic folks feel their own ancestors coming up out of the earth to be in the realms of their descendants – Ntozake Shange

We say their names. We say their names: Eleanor Bumpers. Anthony Báez. Sean Bell. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Tyisha Miller. Oscar Grant. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Tanisha Anderson. Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Akia Gurley. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Micah Jester. Deborah Danner. Walter Scott. Michelle Lee Shirley.

The list, tragically, grows, and still we say their names. We do so as an act of remembrance. As an offering. As peoples of African descent around the world do in times of ceremony, in the name of ritual. We remember those who have come before us, who have birthed this current historical moment of awakening here in the United States. We say their names.

And, as the sounds of their names said aloud echoes, we pray. Ashé.

Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon.  She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). The title of this essay is inspired by Josh Kun’s Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, where he writes that his book is “focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” (25).  

Featured Image “Freedom Marchers” by Flickr User Keoni Cabral, Photoshop processed digital image from the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia (CC BY 2.0).

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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka–Kristin Moriah

Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

 

Vocal Deformance and Performative Speech, or In Different Voices!

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**This post was co-authored by Marit J. MacArthur and Lee M. Miller

Like it or not, we are now accustomed to contemporary pop vocalists manipulating their voices using Autotune and other tools or effects for pitch correction.  We may exult in it, and congratulate ourselves on our sophisticated appreciation of the options available to the contemporary vocalist. In another mood, we may scream for low-fi and acoustic music, feel cynical about the possibility that we might ever hear an unmediated voice, live or recorded (if we ever did), and/or laugh off the notion of authenticity in performance entirely. Of course, rather than tricking the audience or trying to sound somehow “better” than they are, many performers manipulate their voices to pose questions about the nature of performance—Reggie Watts and Anna Deavere Smith come readily to mind—and to test essentialist assumptions about and perceptions of voice and sound.

Watts, in an exemplary 2012 TED Talk, plays with the different sorts of authority and affect conveyed by, among other voices: upper-class-British-absurd-explanatory, affectively-meaningful-nonsense-foreign-language, and caz-hip-hop-introducing-a-song-chat. Inhabiting and playing with different voices, he amuses listeners into recognizing how much intonation—the rise and fall of pitch—and other acoustic features affect our perception of a speaker’s voice, and how much we expect people to speak in ways that match our assumptions about their identities.

t-sWe cannot all be so talented at vocal imitation, however. And in sound, voice and performance studies concerned with speech, machine-assisted manipulation of vocal recordings—which we term “vocal deformance”—is much less common than in the creative industries. A playful approach to vocal deformance, as a critical and creative practice, has much to teach us about our perceptions of speech in general, and performative speech in particular. Too often, when we use archival poetry recordings in our teaching, they may reify an idea that students are often loathe to relinquish: a poem is a finished art object, weighted with authorial intention and biographical significance, with one possible interpretation (the instructor’s). When we play a single canonical recording of T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land in 1946, for instance, his particular intonation, together with assumptions that he was a stuffy, overeducated, repressed snob, can foreclose the possibility of a fresh encounter with the many voices of the poem and a multitude of interpretations.

Using vocal deformance in the classroom and in our own research and scholarship, we can unsettle overdetermined readings of poems, essentialist assumptions about the poets who speak them and questions of poetic authority, and recover the crucial oral components of poetry. Below we offer some examples of vocal deformance of poetry readings, and consider the potential and limits of this technique for teaching and research with recordings of performative speech. As John Hyland wrote in Sounding Out! in 2014, “The act of listening to recorded poetry … poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on … questions of voice and poetry.” Among these challenges are essentialist assumptions, both about identity and recording medium,  which are difficult to avoid when we listen. Hyland concludes that, when we listen to recordings, “the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative ‘aura,’ as Walter Benjamin used that word”; one way to counter to this is to listen to the same poem read by the poet at different points in their career, in different contexts, as Hyland does with three recordings of Amiri Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Another approach is to play with recordings.

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"Glitch" by Ray Weitzenberg, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

“Glitch” by Ray Weitzenberg, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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The concept of deformance dates to a 1999 essay by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels. They take inspiration from Emily Dickinson, who sometimes liked to read poems backward, for the potential insights of reading against the form, scrambling the original sequence, and so on. According to McGann and Samuels, Dickinson’s

critical model is performative, not intellectual [. . . ]. it is anti-theoretical: not because it is opposed to theory (i.e., speculative thought), but because it places theory in a subordinated relation to practice. Deformative moves reinvestigate the terms … [of] critical commentary [, with] dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features. [our italics]

Too often in the literature class room, the subjectivity of interpretation is something of a problem. While we might initially encourage a somewhat fluffy reader-response discussion of a poem, eventually we might also worry that students are simply wandering too far from it, following their own random associations with a phrase or metaphor, without learning to parse the rich intricacy of the whole poem. One effect of vocal deformance is that it makes space for the playful response, and also keeps bringing students back to the telling phrase, to the words of the poem, imagining what difference it makes if they are said in different ways, trying on different interpretations, as it were.

While vocal deformance can be applied to any performative speech, it particularly lends itself to poetry recordings. Poetry is, of course, an oral form with a fraught relationship between text and performance, and poetry reading styles are often perceived to be highly conventional, so that we feel we are listening to a Poem rather than a particular poem. From a literary and performance studies perspective, what could be more tiredly familiar than a canonical recording of a canonical poem by a canonical poet in a conventional style of poetry reading that deadens the audience to the charms and nuances of that poem? And how can we do something productive and interesting with the (sometimes extremely) idiosyncratic subjectivity of student responses to canonical texts?

As an interpretive practice, vocal deformance opens up new possibilities for testing assumptions about performance, poetic authority and gender, and, potentially, about race, class, education, region, and canonicity. Is The Waste Land (1922) the deadly serious poem that many readers often take it to be, partly because it is presented to them as an immensely influential Modernist monolith? How does T.S. Eliot’s seemingly grim reading of it, and our perception of his style, contribute to such an interpretation of the poem? After all, the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and it includes many different voices or speakers, from the clairvoyant Madame Sosistris to Tiresias. What better way to defamiliarize and exploit the authority of the poem than to deform Eliot’s authoritative reading voice?

How do we respond to the now-canonical voice of Eliot reading the opening lines of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”?

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Okay. Now what if we raise his pitch? Is he suddenly his own great-aunt? What does the same lament mean, spoken by a voice that sounds like an elderly woman?

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And if we leave his pitch alone, but speed up his speaking rate, does he suddenly sound like an old-school radio announcer, the poem a deranged weather forecast?

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Glitch Decoration GIF Glitch animation made for a glitch sound effect. Based on cc0/pd commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glitch_video.ogg, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.

Glitch Decoration GIF, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.

In terms of digital humanities research, a refreshing aspect of vocal deformance is that it avoids some of the easy and misleading reassurances of the empirical move. It’s not that it only clarifies what we thought we were hearing (as visualizing intonation through pitch contours can), but that it encourages multiplicity in listening.

Vocal deformance is essentially a playful strategy for defamiliarization that reminds us, in many ways, of the subjective, creative, even arbitrary nature of interpretation. In this, it has clear affinities with the OULIPO movement (which Dickinson’s practice of reading backwards presages). It may help us imagine, create and respond to alternative sequences and versions of recorded canonical texts—and to any apparently stable, singular performance of a text. The art of the glitch is one deformative practice, with the goal countering screen essentialism, the unreflective assumption that a digital artefact is immutable, stable and coherent. For an example of glitching photographs, see Trevor Owens’s “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps,” and Michael Kramer’s blog post about using audio deformance in a digital folk music history seminar at Northwestern University, “Distorting History to Make It More Accurate,” which demonstrates some potential insights gained by glitching newspaper images, photographs and music (Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”).  John Melillo and Johanna Skibsrud’s “Two Sides for Wallace Stevens,” on Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room site, also offers a beguiling example of audio deformance.

Most deformative practices work with text and image, however, and the few that manipulate recordings introduce noise, skipped phrases, repetition, etc., usually without changing the acoustic features of the voice. It is well worth applying deformance more often to speech, not only in linguistics and the neurobiology of speech perception, but in humanistic study of performative speech because our perception of speech is nothing if not subjective, not to say mysterious, for two reasons.

First, our expectations of what we will hear influence what we do hear, from simple sounds to complex language comprehension. Often these expectations, which can be visual, auditory, cultural, etc., have been naturalized by the listener over time as unconscious reactions. Though many have anecdotal experience of this phenomenon (see an example about a black student, a white teacher, and a black student-teacher disagreeing on what the student said in a 2012 Sounding Out! piece by Christina Sharpe), it is has been demonstrated in many experiments as well. For instance, our perception of foreign-accented speech changes rapidly as we hear a few sentences and calibrate our internal expectations, as shown by Clarke and Garret’s 2004 study “Rapid Adaptation to Foreign-accented English.” And, according to Richard Warren’s “Perceptural Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds” (1970), “when natural speech is interrupted by noisy gaps like a cough or a slammed door, we unknowingly “fill in” the noise, vividly hearing speech sounds that do not exist acoustically. This phenomenon arises both from linguistic expectations as well as our deep familiarity with basic speech acoustics, as shown in Shahin, Bishop, and Miller’s “Neural mechanisms for illusory filling-in of degraded speech.” Similarly, in an illusion called the McGurk effect—noted by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in 1976—just seeing a talker’s lip movements changes the perception of speech sounds categorically, say from “buck” to “duck.”

Though much of this reshaping of our acoustic perception happens unconsciously, we can also profoundly alter what we hear through selective attention. Particularly in everyday acoustic environments, we hear speech better when we expect it, and when it matches our specific expectations: from a given location, from a certain talker or type of talker, at a certain pitch, and so on (See “Speech Recognition in Adverse Conditions: A Review” by Mattys, Davis, et al. 2012).  Perceptual filters fundamentally constrain our experience: if we attend to a talker in one ear, we may not even realize when a second talker in the other ear switches from English to German, as Cherry concluded in “Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech” in 1953.  Social and cultural knowledge also changes what we hear. Listening to someone whom a listener visually perceives as a “non-native speaker” can make speech sound not only more “accented” (see Donald Rubin’s “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting S Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants” from 1992)—what we might call a subjective quality—but, as Molly Babel and Jamie Russell found in 2015’s “Expectations and Speech Intelligibility,” it can also trigger speech processing reactions that make the speech less intelligible to the listener making visual judgments regarding accented speech.

Waveform from a sine wave composition, "Wave Hello to Outsiders." Rendered in Adobe Audition.

Waveform from a sine wave composition, “Wave Hello to Outsiders.” Rendered in Adobe Audition by Matthew Potter. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Given what we know about the brain, the fact that expectations affect perception—of recorded voices reading poems, in this case—should not come as a surprise. A growing consensus holds that the brain’s job is not merely to represent the world; rather it strives to predict the world, make inferences about it, and  correct those expectations whenever a mismatch is detected (see Knill and Pouget’s “The Bayesian brain: the role of uncertainty in neural coding and computation” [2004] and Karl Friston’s 2010 “The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?”) In somewhat familiar environments and situations (pretty much everything after infancy), predictive inference is far more efficient than continually rendering the perceptual world de novo. This means that vocal deformance—particularly when it manipulates a known voice, as with canonical poets, or a familiar way of speaking, as with conventional poetry reading styles—waves a red flag at the brain. Change wakes up the quiescent, habitual brain to something new and potentially informative, because the voice does not fit our expectations for what the person would or should sound like. Listen to Reggie Watts!

This effect can also operate inversely; that is, if we do not expect someone to have a particular voice, we may adjust the stories we tell ourselves about our perceptions, to better match our expectations. In musicology, we might think of Nina Eidsheim’s article on the racialized reception of opera singer Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera:

the timbre of her voice has routinely (if often admiringly) been characterized as ‘black,’ … [despite] classical music’s minimal indulgence of individual style … this distinction [has] to be based on an assumption that the black body is intrinsically different from the white body and that even when emitting a timbre recognized as classical, the resonance of a singer’s black body is evident (3, 4).

Certainly, as Jennifer Stoever writes, “listening [is] an interpretive site where racial difference is coded, produced, and policed” (62). The same is true of gender difference and many other identity markers and cultural factors related to authority and authenticity. As Shai Burstyn notes in the article “In Quest of the Period Ear,” about attempts to imagine how contemporary audiences experienced medieval music, “culture plays a highly significant—though not exclusive—role in shaping the cognitive skills of its members” (695).  If it is remarkably difficult to escape our stereotypical expectations and perceptions of what a person’s voice “should” sound like, that is partly because our brain uses such expectations to make predictions about our sonic experience. We cannot overcome our expectations through good will alone, and engaging with these issues in the classroom, which can be challenging, also provides an opportunity to help students think critically about essentialism and voice, for those moments when a student in the back of the room mutters in surprise that Langston Hughes “doesn’t sound black,” or exclaims that Walt Whitman “doesn’t sound gay.” Though it is not designed to assess stereotyping in speech perception, the Harvard implicit bias test is a good way to engage students in questions of cultural bias and perception [also, see “So You Flunked a Racism Test. Now What?”].

Furthermore, our affective responses to acoustic, non-verbal qualities of speech matter tremendously to our interpretation of verbal semantics, of the meaning of the words spoken. According to voice perception research in Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception by Jody Kreiman and Diana Sidtis, when we listen to speech, “[s]ome authors … have claimed that normal adults usually believe the tone of voice rather than the words…. For example, the contrast in ‘I feel just fine’ spoken in a tense, tentative tone might be politely ignored, while, ‘I’m not angry’ spoken in hot anger would not” (304). The teacher’s boring tone of voice on the Peanuts cartoon makes the point.

In other words, we pick up on the affective meaning of a speaker’s tone of voice, and weigh it against the semantic meaning of the words spoken. While Kreiman and Sidtis argue that tone cannot be reduced to intonation patterns, “the fundamental frequency of the human voice [pitch] … heads the list of important cues for emotional meanings” (311). Pitch manipulation, then, changes the affective meaning of speech. Tone of voice is also influenced by other acoustic features, including speaking rate or tempo, and rhythm. In poetry recordings, the poet’s tone of voice influences the listener’s interpretation of a poem.

Two fundamental intonation patterns are rising or falling pitch. In American English, relatively high or relatively low pitch at the end of an utterance, compared to the beginning and middle, seems to carry distinct meanings, as demonstrated by Janet Pierrehumbert and Julia Hirschberg. They developed the ToBI (Tones and Break Indices) system for marking the prosody or intonation of speech. Rising intonation can make any utterance sound like a question, whether it is one or not. A relatively high pitch at the end of an utterance—called a high boundary tone—can make the speaker sound less confident or assertive, and more open to other’s opinions. Rising intonation implies that more is to come, that the utterance is not conclusive or concluded, that it should be understood in connection to the next utterance, and sometimes, that the speaker seeks the listener’s agreement before proceeding.

Uptalk, notably practiced among Generation Xers and now millennials, sounds conciliatory, agreeable and open, on the one hand, and lacking in confidence and authority, on the other—depending on the listener and the context. Marybeth Seitz-Brown argues that criticizing uptalk “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable … [and] sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”

Conversely, women can be criticized when they sound too much like men; see “Why Do So Many People Hate the Sound of Hillary Clinton’s Voice?” Falling intonation—and ending an utterance on a relatively low pitch, or a low boundary tone, implies conclusion, closure and confidence. The utterance, such intonation implies, finishes the argument (if there is one), does not seek the listener’s agreement or opinion, and suggests that this utterance can be understood on its own, without connection to subsequent utterances. Donald Trump, for example, is fond of falling intonation and low boundary tones (for a parody of masculine confident declarative intonation, have a listen at Troy McClure from The Simpsons.)

Of course, not all women use uptalk, and not all men use falling intonation with low boundary tones. In American culture, for better or worse, low boundary tones do seem to carry a tone of authority. And in poetry reading as well. Eliot’s original, and now canonical, reading of the opening line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month,” uses falling intonation, so that it sounds like a confident assertion, with a low boundary tone on “month.”

eliotpitchcontouroriginal

Click on the image to enlarge the pitch contour graph showing Eliot’s low boundary tone.

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“[B]reeding / lilacs out of the dead land” sounds like a steady, inevitable process, ending on a slightly higher relative pitch, implying that there is more to come, and that the phrase should be understood in connection to the next line, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

What is so compelling and seemingly authoritative about Eliot’s reading style? In some basic sense, the falling intonation of the first phrase does it. Why does it strike many contemporary listeners as pompous? How might we undercut the seeming authority of the Eliotic voice? Make him do uptalk. Here we have simply inverted his intonation.

eliotpitchcontourflip

Click on the image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Eliot’s voice “flipped.”

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Suddenly he sounds doubtful. The opening line becomes a question—“April is the cruellest month[?]”—instead of a confident statement. Suddenly, Eliot himself expresses the skepticism or confusion many an undergraduate has felt—before we encountered this poem, did we not assume that spring, the return of life and fertility, is a cheerful escape from winter? And his deformed recital of “breeding / Lilacs out the dead land” suddenly sounds more like an agonized complaint, expressing the painful, reluctant awakening of desire in one who had found the dull sleep of winter comforting. Inverting the typical poetic authority of falling intonation into uptalk may embolden readers to entertain very different readings of the poem’s opening.

The editors of Poetry Archive had hopes of stimulating listeners of The Waste Land when they made available a 1935 recording of the poem, claiming: “Whilst the sound quality is understandably not so good, the recording is fascinating for Eliot’s faster, more energetic rendition. Listening to this urgent interpretation blows the dust of this iconic poem and helps us encounter it afresh.” However, if the fundamental falling intonation pattern of Eliot’s reading style doesn’t change—and overall, it doesn’t, between the 1935 and 1946 recordings—his voice may remain, for listeners, an aloof poetic authority.

Adrienne Rich reading her poetry

Adrienne Rich reading her poetry

Falling intonation with low boundary tones, then, is a fundental tone of poetic authority. Listen to Adrienne Rich reading from her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These” (1995), which leads the reader to a place “between two stands of trees … near … [where] the persecuted / … disappeared into the shadows.” She insists, “this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,” and concludes,  “to have you listen at all it’s necessary / to talk about trees.”

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Click here to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Rich’s “original” reading

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She sounds like she means it. Rich has to write poems about nature, her tone implies, to wake people up to the political horrors of the American past and present. Poetry as a form, in pastoral guise, allows her to sneak in political content, potentially grabbing the attention of people who might only listen to poetry if they think it is safely, simply about nature. (Click here to hear the entire poem, starting at 4:01.)

When we invert her intonation, turning it into uptalk, she sounds as if she is questioning the wisdom of this approach, and/or chiding her listeners for making her take it. In this case, uptalk exerts a different kind of authority, the challenging question.

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Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Rich’s voice “flipped.”

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Is it ethical to manipulate the intonation and other vocal qualities on poetry recordings, for the purposes of teaching and research? Obviously it would not be, if we were to present the manipulated recordings as the authentic voice of a poet. And all peoples have the right to protect culturally sensitive recordings, such as sacred songs, music, dances and prayers; see “Native American Intellectual Property Issues.” Otherwise, potential conflicts are similar to those with sampling in the music industry (See Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling [2011]). Vocal deformance, however, can help remind us that no single reading of a poem, by the poet or someone else, is the ultimately authoritative one.

Photograph of Auden speaking at the Boston Sheraton Hotel, with Professor John L. Mahoney sitting on stage, February 23, 1966, Box 60, Folder 9, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director's Records, MS2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Photograph of Auden speaking at the Boston Sheraton Hotel, February 23, 1966, Box 60, Folder 9, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In teaching writing, we (the authors) sometimes ask our students to explore alternative methods of presenting the same material. This can be as simple as writing the same sentence, the thesis for instance, in three different ways, or it can involve a different format. Write a poem, record oneself reading it, then try to represent it with a collage of images. Turn a 2,000-word essay into a 250-word presentation with verbal and sonic components. An instructive trick with the opening line of W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940): “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” They were never wrong, the Old Masters, about suffering. The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering. Each version of the opening creates a subtly different emphasis, on suffering versus the wisdom of the Old Masters.

Too often, we lock ourselves into one approach, and cannot imagine an alternative. Locked into one approach, too often we cannot imagine an alternative. Alternatives we cannot imagine, if we lock into one approach too quickly. Writing three different opening paragraphs to the same essay, or rearranging the lines of the poem, stimulates our imagination and our critical faculties because it dramatizes different possibilities, possibilities that offer a different emphasis. And when we play with the pitch, intonation and speaking rate of a poem, this can change the tone as dramatically, from a challenge to confession, or an assertion into doubt.

In the classroom, poet Harryette Mullen is often popular with students, both for her poems on the page and for her expressive reading style, while students can sometimes resist recordings by Adrienne Rich (saying that she sounds lecture-y) and Louise Glück (saying that she sounds bored by her own poems), even as they are engaged by the poems on the page.

When Mullen reads “Present Tense” (2002)—a beguiling comical poem, loosely about the grammatical present and the speaker’s and the world’s present circumstances —what is it about her contrastive intonation that sounds expressive? She ends her opening phrases, “Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine” with rising intonation and high boundary tones. This draws the reader on: keep listening, the statement’s not finished.

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Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Mullen’s reading

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When we flip the intonation pattern, so that each utterance ends on a relatively low pitch, she sounds more conventional, a poetic authority declaring observations, confident and closed off.

mullenpitchcontourpresenttenseflip

Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Mullen’s reading “flipped”

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Another tone of poetic authority approaches pure monotony. It was practiced by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Irish modernist poet W.B. Yeats and, perhaps through Yeats’s influence, by American poets such as Yvor Winters. Note how similar they sound here. Winters reads the opening of his poem “The Journey” (1931),  moving into a Yeatsian monotone after the title and location of Snake River Country, “I now remembered slowly how I came[.]”

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Click here to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Winters reading “The Journey.”

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Here is Yeats reading the opening of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree[.]”

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Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Yeats reading “The Isle of Innisfree”

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All we have to do to turn Winters into Yeats is raise his pitch a bit:

Click here to enlarge the pitch contour graph of "Winters as Yeats."

Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of “Winters as Yeats.”

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Monotone performance is—at least acoustically—quite uninformative for the brain. Early parts of the auditory brain rapidly adapt or habituate to a wide array of regularities such as pitch and temporal pattern, and they only signal when the pattern changes, as noted in “Early selective-attention effect on evoked potential reinterpreted” (Näätänen, Gaillard et al., 1978). But expectations can work differently across speech’s descriptive dimensions. When speech is usually vivid, as in a direct quotation (“He said ‘I’m leaving now”), higher-level voice-processing areas in the right temporal lobe actually work harder to process (unexpectedly) monotone quotes, according to Yao, Belin, et al.’s “Brain ‘talks over’ boring quotes: top-down activation of voice-selective areas while listening to monotonous direct speech quotations” (2012). In other words, sameness of pitch often means the brain must work harder to grasp meaning.

Interestingly, David Hadbawnik relates in Sounding Out! his disappointment with the productions of three audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English created with SPARSAR, because “they produced monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody.” Vocal deformance might allow him to try to approximate Middle English prosody with the specimens.

MacArthur has written elsewhere about “poet voice,” which she also calls “monotonous incantation.” But how close are contemporary canonical poets to actual monotone, compared to Tennyson and Yeats? Here is Glück, whose reading style is often mentioned as an example of Poet Voice, reading the third stanza of “The Wild Iris” (1992): “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”:

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Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Glück reading “The Wild Iris.”

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Not much manipulation is required to make it purely monotone, which may account for some students saying she sounds bored by her own poems—though they do not say that about Yeats. They say Yeats’s voice makes them feel like they are in church.

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Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Glück “flattened.”

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Ideally, Glück’s manner of reading her poem should not prevent students from appreciating it. While in other contexts we may defend women’s use of uptalk, it also seems fair to raise the point that academic poetry reading can seem to discourage the expression of affect. (See Donald Hall’s well-known polemic, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance / Private Art” (1985) and David Groff’s “The Peril of the Poetry Reading: Page Versus Performance” [2005].) Vocal deformance, among other strategies, might help students perceive as much drama in Glück’s poems as they do in Mullen’s—and find as much as poetic authority in both poets’ voices as they do in Yeats’s churchy one. Here, we’ve manipulated Glück’s voice to sound more like Mullen’s style of reading, with a wider pitch range and rising intonation and high boundary tones.

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Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Glück reading “expressively.”

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If we want to explore alternatives to conventional modes of reading poetry, as many do, directly deforming the acoustic qualities of canonical recordings is an excellent way to defamiliarize performance conventions. Ideally, it can help us listen to alternate versions of the history of poetic performance and to different, unimagined possibilities in the present. Given the extraordinary vitality of spoken word and slam poetry outside the academy, it would be a missed opportunity to suppress varied reading styles in the classroom. At the same time, it would be a great shame to leave behind canonical American poetry when the poets’ reading styles fail to appeal to students.

Finally, if we want to liberate students from the anti-performative tendencies of academic culture, resist essentialist readings of poems according to our assumptions about the identities of the poets who wrote them, and dramatize the idea that there are many ways to read a poem, vocal deformance can help, alongside other strategies. As Yvon Bonenfant wrote in a 2014 Sounding Out! piece, “we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when.”

Instead, let’s play in different voices.

NOTE: To illustrate vocal deformance, we used Straight, a state-of-the-art open-source voice synthesis program developed by Hideki Kawahara at Wakayama University in Japan, with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute and the Auditory Brain Project. We also used Drift, an open-source pitch-tracking tool that uses an algorithm developed by Byung Suk Lee and Dan Ellis, implemented by Robert Ochshorn and Max Hawkins  with support from MacArthur’s ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship in 2015-16, to visualize intonation with pitch contours.

Marit J. MacArthur is associate professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield, and a research associate in Cinema and Digital Media at the University of California, Davis.

Lee M. Miller is associate professor of Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior at the University of California, Davis, and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain.

Featured Image: Cropped and Enlarged version of Bill Smith’s “Voice Glitch,” Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Audiotactility & the Medieval Soundscape of Parchment

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series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Each of the essays in our “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

Read all the previous posts here, and, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

As humans, we engage all of our senses in every undertaking, whether or not we consciously perceive our sensory interactions. For instance, when we consume a gourmet meal, we don’t simply taste the food—we also see it, smell it, and feel it. We might also hear it as it is being prepared and/or consumed, and the meal’s pleasure can be enhanced by conversation. Overall, our experiences are enriched (or worsened) through our multisensory engagement. Similarly, reading involves multimodal feedback. While we might think of it as solely a visual experience, both auditory and tactile interactions occur within the process. As The Handbook of Multisensory Processes (518) tells us, audiotactile (sound+touch) and visuotactile (sight+touch) interactions are of great functional importance as they link remote senses to the body.

Thus, our interactions with everyday objects are multisensory, even if we do not consciously realize that fact. Arguably, although the sense of hearing is the first to develop in the womb, it is often the sense we overlook in solitary pursuits such as reading. Nevertheless, every human action occurs within a soundscape, much like they take place within a landscape. A soundscape is “an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by the individual, or by a society. It thus depends on the relationship between the individual and any such environment” (Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, 1978). Like landscapes, soundscapes must be considered in context and in relation to multisensory experience.

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Fontaine des Mers, France, Image by Flickr User Daniel Mennerich

In particular, audio-visual interactions have been shown to have an effect on soundscape perception. Soundscape design elements reflect this concern. For example, a plan might include adding fountains, both as a noise control element and as a deliberate introduction of a soothing sonic feature. At the same time, fountains are a managed version of a natural element (water) that incorporate certain visual effects (e.g. reflective space and sparkling sunlight) creating textured and appealing landscapes. How the element is introduced into the environment has an effect on the perception (and appreciation) of the space. Furthermore, the touch of cool, clean water can supplement the overall impression, heightening the soothing effect initiated by the tinkling sound of the moving water. This is an audiotactile experience; that is, sounds connected with the sense of touch, an ecological system that combines the haptic and the aural.

Although the field of audiotactile integration has been somewhat dormant in the biological sciences since Paul von Schiller suggested back in 1932 that sounds, especially patterned noises, could affect tactile perception of roughness, recently some researchers have conducted experiments that test audiotactile qualities of materials. Several have suggested that these results might be synthetic—that is, the impact the sounds have modulate the haptic perception of the material being touched. For the most part, there seems to be connections between the perceptions of the sounds involved in touch and the perceptions of the stiffness of material. However, one study demonstrates that synchronized movements and sounds can affect the perception of the subject’s own skin.  Suffice it to say, then, that sounds and texture and material quality are linked, both physically and perceptively.

Although humans rarely display deliberate awareness of audiotactile interaction, both auditory and haptic stimulation share similar temporal and psychological patterns in human consciousness. This connection would have perhaps been even more true in the Middle Ages than it is now, since the context of parchment and manuscript production and consumption was more immediately personal than paper production and reading is today.

To understand both the historicizing of the senses and the impact of shifting modes of literacy, it is possible to recreate some of the former immediacy of parchment production. During the summer of 2015, I participated in a National Endowments for the Humanities Seminar on Manuscript Materiality. This occasion provided me with the opportunity to make a manuscript page replica, starting from the “ground up” with the creation of parchment. We also studied theory, page layout, and other material circumstances, allowing us to really think about how people—both medieval and modern—engage with manuscripts using their senses. Elsewhere I have discussed the sense of touch. Here, I want to extend that discussion to include the sense of hearing; that is, I will focus on the sounds of parchment-making and parchment-reading, as activated through touching.

Parchment (Latin pergamenum) is the general term used for an animal hide that has been prepared for writing. Vellum (Latin vitulinum) more specifically refers to prepared calfskin. Parchment is made through an extended process of skinning, cleaning (de-fleshing and de-hairing), stretching, and scraping. It is stretched and scraped on special frames with adjustable screw pegs. The parchment maker scrapes the skin to the desired thickness with a curved tool, adjusting the pegs as the skin dries and changes texture. Often the skin is rewetted, scraped, and stretched numerous times in order to achieve the desired thickness. Sometimes a pumice stone finish is used at the end to create a surface porous enough to accept and retain ink. This is a vastly different process than tanning, which involves chemical alteration of the skins.

A close up of the scraping tool crafted by Jesse.

A close up of the scraping tool crafted by Jesse Meyer of Pergamena.

In the seminar, our parchment master was Jesse Meyer of Pergamena.  He provided tools, guidance, and expertise as we participants stumbled through the process. Parchment making is hard, smelly work. My hands ached after only a few go-rounds with the tools, which included a pumice-like concoction of over-baked bread mixed with ground glass, knives that had been reshaped and re-handled, and Jesse’s special skin-refiner tool discussed below. Jesse told us many eye-opening things over the days of parchment making; however, possibly one of the most intriguing was how parchment masters could make a parchment “sing,” and how they, through this sound, knew whether or not the skin had reached its full potential.

So when Jesse demonstrated the various techniques on his sample skin, I listened carefully to the sounds he made by scraping as well as watching what he did with his hands. As he scraped away, the parchment did indeed sing. You can hear it yourself:

Audio Clip of Jesse’s “Parchment Singing”

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This aspect of parchment making fascinated me. After our seminar was done, I got back in touch with Jesse to talk further about the sounds of parchment making. He was more than forthcoming about his experiences. When Jesse first read about medieval parchment making, he ran across several mentions of the “ringing” sound that parchment masters produced when shaving their skins. He, like many of us, had never considered that aspect before. So he started paying attention to the different sounds he made as he used various tools on the skins. Right now, he uses a handmade tool that consists of a saw blade shaved to his specificity with a handmade handle on it. Each of us got a chance to hold it and try it on our own skin. It was an unwieldy tool for the uninitiated, and my parchment did not “sing” like Jesse’s did.

Parchment master, Jesse Meyer of Pergamena demonstrating his technique using a tool he created himself, designed after the fashion of medieval instruments.

Parchment master, Jesse Meyer of Pergamena demonstrating his technique using a tool he created himself, designed after the fashion of medieval instruments. Image by author.

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Jesse is an expert, but even he says he cannot quite tell the nuances among the different types of skins by sound alone, although he notes that there are similarities among the types. Perhaps that skill could be developed over years of working solely with parchment, as a master in the Middle Ages would have. What Jesse has shared, however, is valuable: thicker skins are not as flexible, but they produce a “better,” that is clearer, sound.

Close up of parchment “dust.”

Close up of parchment “dust.” Image by author.

Thickness of parchment can be due to a number of factors including preparation technique, but also the age and type of animal. Older animals yield thicker skins. Thicker skins are usually smoother and yield a cleaner sound. Of course if the animal has been injured or diseased, the skin may not be smooth. The firmer and tighter a skin is, the denser it is, and the easier it is to shave as well. In fact, Jesse says that denser skins can also make full, warm, “drum-like” sounds. Even more intriguingly, when I asked Jesse if he had ever noticed a difference between the hair side and the flesh side of skins, he said yes: the hair side of parchment sounds better to him because it is cleaner once the hair has been removed. The flesh side often retains fibrous bits even after many scrapings, and produces a more diffuse sound. When this side is scraped, it leaves behind a “fuzzy” residue until it has seen many passes with the scraper.

The relative dryness and “freshness” of the skin can also alter the clarity of the “ringing.” For example, compare the sound from the freshly prepared goatskin last summer to the sound from scraping a drier goatskin in Jesse’s workshop:

Repeat of first audio clip of Jesse’s “parchment singing”

Comparison clip of Jesse making a drier parchment sing

Both of these clips were produced from goatskins, and both were produced by Jesse who also used the same tool on each. While the sound is very similar, and both ring true, the drier skin produces a clearer, purer sound.

Plainly, then, the sounds of parchment making are vital to quality production. Most medieval manuscripts are made of three types of animal skins: sheep, goat, and calf. The prevalence of each animal is geographically dependent (sheepskin is more common in England, calfskin in France, and goatskin in Italy), although of course manuscripts traveled, and wealthy patrons commissioned materials they preferred. (see “DNA May Reveal Origins of Medieval Manuscripts” from Livescience)

Age, breed, size, and animal health can all contribute to the audiotactile qualities of a skin. However, there are some general guidelines. Sheepskins, for instance, are stretchier than goat skins, so their “ringing” can be muffled. Goatskins, which are thinner and stiffer, make a higher pitched “ring.” Calfskins are larger and easier than the others to get clean, and thus often make the cleanest “ring” and can do so more quickly than the others.

The type of skin is not the only factor in play. A rough blade would have produced a rough sound; conversely, an even, sharp blade would have produce the cleanest sound. The tautness of the skin in the frame can also affect pitch and tone, as can its dryness, its fatty content, and the age of the animal. As noted in a recent study, “The density of collagen fibrils in calf and goat parchment, compared with a more open weave and higher fat content in sheep parchment, favors the former two species [for producing the finest parchment]” (15070). Nevertheless, master parchment makers should have been able to manipulate any skin to produce superior results. As long as the corium (the dermis layer of skin containing all the connective tissues, including collagen, elastic fibers, hair follicles, sebaceous glands, blood vessels, and a number of other components) is sufficiently ground down, the parchment produced can be made very fine. And as the corium wears away, the sound of the scraping grows ever cleaner and clearer, just as the feel of the skin grows ever smoother. Overall, the tone gets higher as the skin gets thinner, and as long as the scrape is even, the tone should remain pure.

Here’s a video of Jesse scraping a calfskin. Compare this clear “ringing” to the goatskin scrapings:

Jesse making his blade sing on handmade parchment @pergamenany

A post shared by runninghands (@runninghands) on

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That’s all well and good for production of manuscripts, but texts are made for consumption. Earlier, I mentioned my having considered the qualities of hapacity and manuscripts involving Christ’s side wound in another blog post. One of the manuscripts I discussed, London, British Library, MS Egerton 1821, was clearly designed to be touched. This unusual manuscript contains a number of woodcuts that reflect devotion to the wounds of Christ, but, more strikingly, opens with three pages painted black, covered in drops of paint meant to emulate Christ’s flowing blood.

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Image of MS Egerton 1821, British Library, London.

After a series of woodcuts, seven more pages appear. These are painted red with darker red paint splatters representing drops of blood. Although these pages do not contain specific images, they are meant to evoke interactive piety. The reader is invited to touch Christ’s wounds while praying or meditating. The worn appearance of Folio 2r demonstrates just how frequently the pages were touched and rubbed.

How did those pages feel to a medieval reader? Did they feel rough or smooth? Did the reader feel a frisson of excitement? Animal skin, such as parchment, carried with it the essence of the life of the animal, thus imbuing the images painted onto it with some semblance of life force, such as suggested by Thomas Aquinas in his Question 8 (Summa Theologica) regarding the potential for divinity placed within material objects. To a certain extent, then, touching an image of Christ was akin to touching a proxy of his body, allowing a powerful and individual haptic experience of faith. But what about the sounds made when these images became the subject of interaction? Was the medieval reader aware of touching the page, touching Christ’s wounds, even more because he or she would hear the interaction?

I took it upon myself to rub the worn folio in Egerton 1821. I did so reverently, if not because I felt a mystical connection to Christ, but because I felt awed at being able to reproduce a medieval experience (albeit 500 years later). There was a distinct sound, which you can hear in this clip:

Clip of the author rubbing the worn folio in Egerton 1821

I was surprised at the resultant sound. The worn part of the page looked soft, and the paint splatters looked cracked. Instead, to my surprise, the worn portions felt rougher than the cracked paint. Like the modern studies demonstrated, my audiotactile perceptions were altered initially by what I saw, but then by what I heard. At first, I touched hesitantly, but when the sounds produced became rhythmic, my hands felt smoother and the noise sounded more even. If I were repeatedly rubbing the same spot, in the same manner, producing the same sounds—much as a medieval reader might have done—the combined sensations would likely have produced a soporific and meditative state. That is, combining touch, particularly of a textured surface, with measured reading might have resulted in the ideal perceptive state for experiencing an immersive religious experience.

If, as numerous studies have demonstrated, vibrotactile stimuli can facilitate hearing, both for those with and without hearing impairments, then the sounds hand and fingers make when exploring a surface must contribute to an individual’s haptic perception and vice versa. How, then, would this connect on the behavioral or emotional level? Researchers have been exploring the reciprocal interactions of the auditory, tactile, and visual (sometimes referred to as cross-modal effects), often concentrating on sensory thresholds, information processing performance, and spatial navigation; however, only recently are studies beginning to investigate the emotional and physical benefits of such exchanges. For instance, one such study suggests auditory-tactile stimulation as a means to increase health and well-being.

Thus, a combination of touch felt by a reader with sound heard by a reader at the same time might influence the reader’s state of mind in a positive way, resulting in a positive effect on the body as well. A desired state can be reached more quickly through an audiotactile combination, resulting in a sensory illusion (perceiving something not physically extant but mentally present)—a powerful manner of evoking emotion. Similarly, the positive physical effects include relaxation, stress relief, and sleep enhancement. Again, this seemingly suggests that multisensory integration, especially the combination of touch and sound, might have produced a mental state in the (medieval) reader that made them particularly receptive to spiritual experience.

"Touch" by Daniel Friedman (CC BY 2.0)

“Touch” by Daniel Friedman (CC BY 2.0)

I would suggest, then, that as medieval scholars, we should examine how audiotactile events are processed during dynamic contact between hands and material. Since different sensory modalities are integrated in the human brain to form our perceptions as a whole, including spatial and temporal relationships, it is important that we consider multisensory interactions that code the location of external events relative to our own bodies. Thus, to think through the process of making, touching, and hearing medieval parchment opens up a lot of possibilities for the study of medieval materiality—indeed for materiality in general as a field. The importance of the whole body sensory experience, including hearing, in reading is something we need to continue to imagine, to reimagine, to recreate, and to explore.

Michelle M. Sauer is a professor at the University of North Dakota in the English Department.  She recently released her latest book, titled Gender in Medieval Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015).

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