In honor of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! brings you Pod-Tember (and Pod-Tober too, actually, now that we’re bi-weekly) a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Enjoy! –JS
Last month, Gimlet media released the audio-feature length podcast The Final Chapters of Richard Brown Winters, starring Catherine Keener, Parker Posey, Bobby Cannavale, Sam Waterston, and Darrell Britt-Gibson, many of the same cast members from their critically-acclaimed podcast Homecoming, and also co-written by Eli Horowitz, Homecoming’s co-creator and co-showrunner. Along with the podcast’s famous move to Amazon TV in 2017, Gimlet’s podcast reunion prompted me to re-listen to Homecoming, trying to figure out how its signature use of audio—characterized by Horowitz as “letting the scenes and the conversation create the action instead of describing the action”—propelled the series to its success in the first place.
Homecoming concerns characters connected with afictional military rehabilitation facility in Tampa, Florida, that ostensibly prepares soldiers suffering PTSD for a return for civilian life. The soldiers are subjects of an experimental drug treatment program devised by the US Defence Department-affiliated Geist Group to erase traumatic memories of combat and eliminate resistance to re-deployment. Set in a specifically post-9/11 political milieu, the series plays out in the implied real world context of multiple and on-going US foreign military interventions. Homecoming foregrounds the sonic/auditory modes associated with war–in particular covert electronic surveillance–working to create an atmosphere infused with suspicion, secrecy and deception. In Homecoming’s dissonant sonic/narrative environment ‘home’ is as perilous as the frontline.
Dissonance and displacement inherent in the auditory experience are overarching themes in Homecoming and manifest in an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding temporality, memory, identity and ideas of “home” itself. The sonic world of Homecoming is infused with a sense of discord—recorded audio is subject to manipulation and misinterpretation—and the voice is a site of multiplicities that destabilise concepts of identity and reality. The podcast’s pervasive “out of tune-ness” produces a heightened state of listening – a hypervigilance – both in Homecoming’s characters as they attempt to decipher multiple conflicting aural “intel,” and in the podcast’s audience as we do likewise. It is this dissonance that compels Homecoming’s listeners to prick up our ears and listen more keenly.
The series’ distinctive non-linear, explicitly sound technology-mediated storytelling style takes the form of an “enigmatic collage” of sound artifacts: recorded therapy sessions between Heidi Bergman (Catherine Keener), a case worker/counsellor at the Homecoming facility, and Walter Cruz (Oscar Isaac), a soldier whose recovery she is monitoring; fraught phone conversations between Heidi and the heavily-compromised senior management at Geist; covert surveillance tapes of interaction at the facility between Walter and fellow soldier, Schrier (Babak Tafti), and between Walter and Heidi; and a series of voice messages ostensibly left by Walter on a mobile phone he has given to his mother.
In “Mandatory,” Homecoming’s opening episode, in a fragment of a recorded counselling session between Heidi and her client Walter Cruz, the second in a succession of these fragments that play out over Series One, Heidi tells Walter that her objective is to help to get him “situated” now that he’s back. Through abrupt temporal shifts between the recorded past and the present, the series reveals that this objective was always already thwarted and that Walter’s “situation” in the present is unfixed, unknown and potentially unknowable. Homecoming’s specific atmospheric aural/narrative mode conveys an unsettling sense of fractured selves in an ever-more fractured sonic landscape. Walter functions in this landscape as a reflexive site of multiple sonic presences. At once static and mutable, fixed and shifting he “exists” and is transmitted across a range of sound technologies. Though captured by these recordings, at the same time he evades capture by those seeking him out.
In Homecoming, Walter’s presence is constructed through absence, which positions him as a kind of acousmêtre, described by Michel Chion in The Voice in Cinema as “one who is not-yet-seen but is liable to appear at any moment” (21). Chion has described how “an entire story… can hang on the epiphany of the acousmêtre”…the quest to bring the acousmêtre into the light” (23). In considering the podcast form, being “seen” can be understood as the conveying of presence, that is, the technical and affective means through which a character is felt or experienced. In Homecoming’s specific reflexive use of sound technology to construct Walter as present yet “unseen,” Walter is everywhere and nowhere, always there but at the same time always not there. The series finds a means of achieving what Chion has suggested is unachievable in radio and, by inference, in the podcast – “playing with” presence, partial presence and absence (21). This affective ‘play with presence’ works too to challenge concepts of the ‘disembodied’ voice and speaks to Christine Ehrick’s call in “Gendered Soundscapes” for a more nuanced exploration of the voice/body relationship. As Ehrick puts it – “if the voice is not the body, what is it?”.
In “Mandatory,” Walter is specific about his willingness to adhere to the conditions of his treatment: “I want to be in compliance,” he tells Heidi. Yet Walter’s multiple itinerant sonic selves seem to resist compliance. Though his presence in Homecoming is constructed through a series of seemingly fixed recordings that might suggest change is precluded, Walter is, paradoxically, a site of radical change. In his technology-contingent presence in the series, Walter, having removed himself from circulation, becomes a ‘soldier-body’ in revolt, resisting placement, compliance and commodification. Goldberg and Willse have identified the “soldier-body” as a “temporary” conduit of “the networks of technoscience and capital [that allows] these networks to adapt and survive” in “Losses and Returns: the Soldier in Trauma” (266-267). It is an argument that manifests in Homecoming in Geist’s covert pharmacological strategies to remediate the psychological fragmentation of war trauma in order to render the ‘soldier-body’ utterly compliant and redeployable. Walter’s perpetually withheld presence revokes his soldier-body’s viability as bio-capital and is framed in the series as an existential threat to the military-industrial complex.
“IF WE’RE NOT IN FLORIDA, WHERE ARE WE?”
Ideas of place and presence, particularly in relation to the non-compliant soldier-body, are further problematized in Homecoming in the sole interaction we hear between Walter and Schrier, another returned soldier, in yet another mode of voice recording. In Episode 2, “Pineapple,” within an internet-based call, Heidi’s boss Colin plays her a surveillance recording from the Homecoming cafeteria, one of several instances in the series of the multiple-layering of sound technology. We listen in as Walter and Schrier eat the pineapple-based dessert they’ve been served and debate Schrier’s “pineapple-induced” doubts about their actual location. For an agitated Schrier, pineapple is pineapple-no-longer but a repository of a sinister excess of meaning – a sign that “they,” the military, are “really laying it on thick with this Florida shit.” Are they in Florida or not? Schrier demands evidence: “the only reason we think we’re in Florida is because that’s what they told us”. These duplications, both actual (the recording) and suspected (a fake Florida), produce an atmosphere layered with dissonance and uncertainty.
While Shrier’s suspicion of a fake Florida proves unfounded, this other duplication (the surveillance recording) has catastrophic consequences for him. In Episode 6, “Hysterical”, we learn that after being dropped from the Homecoming treatment programme, Schrier was abruptly taken off the medication that was being administered to him without his knowledge (via the pineapple, as it happens). In yet another fraught call with a distressed Heidi, Colin matter-of-factly recounts the disastrous aftermath for Schrier: “he bit off a chunk of his tongue, spit it at an orderly, then he tried to hang himself. They’ve got him in restraints.”
Not only do the Homecoming soldiers bring traces of war home with them – traumatic memories and symptoms of PTSD – but the place to which they return turns out to bear traces of a war zone. The America of Homecoming is a liminal space, an environment that harbours hidden dangers. While ostensibly home turf, America is a space that functions, in an orchestrated clandestine manner, as an outpost of war, or rather, encompassed within what Ben Anderson has identified as the borderlessness of “total war” (169-171). For Schrier, sonic capture within the Homecoming surveillance recordings pre-figures further physical capture. Ultimately, he ends up hospitalised and literally restrained.
“HEY MA, IT’S ME, IT’S WALTER…”
Though carceral, a place of enclosure that gestures toward the enclosure inherent in the idea of “total war,” the sonic space of the recorded voice artifact in Homecoming exists also as a site of resistance. Walter’s presence in Season Two manifests via a series of voicemail messages left on a cell phone he has given to his mother, Gloria (Mercedes Ruehl). In Episode 8, “Cipher,” Colin, masquerading as a lawyer taking a class action against the government on behalf of the soldiers maltreated at the Homecoming Facility (one of several fake identities he assumes), persuades Gloria to hand over this phone. As if also infected with Walter’s restlessness, the audio files of these messages migrate from Gloria’s phone to the Geist Server to Heidi’s laptop before we actually hear them. The messages provide a cartographic trace of Walter’s movements west, then north, then south and provide those tracking him, Colin and Heidi, with the first hard evidence of his possible whereabouts. Or at least they seem to.
Again Homecoming draws attention to technologies of reproduction and their influence in how we “conceptualise the voice and its powers” as Weidman states in her essay on “Voice” in Keywords in Sound (236). Walter’s phone is understood as an extension of his affective presence. When subsequent faked messages are left on the phone—the first constructed by Gloria to throw Walter’s trackers off the scent, the second by Heidi in order to entrap Colin—it is this aura of authenticity, the misplaced faith in the faithfulness of the sound recording that serves to legitimate the fakes. The messages, both real and faked, carry the aura of the original voice but their increasingly uncertain status signals “the ontological plasticity of the voice” that Nick Prior has articulated in “On Vocal Assemblages” (489), how “the voice sounds out in a social space comprised of a whole panoply of discourses, techniques and machines that objectify and posit it as a particular kind of object and information”(495). In this instance simulation is an act of ‘pushback’ against networks of power, against the seemingly-fixed borders of recording technology, it is an act that for Walter effects a kind of escape. He remains ‘un-situated.’ Perhaps the safest place for Walter, the only place like home, is in the ‘no place’ of the digital recordings in which he manifests.
Farokh Soltani describes the podcasting form as “the key transformative development in the history of audio drama” in “Inner Ears and Distant Worlds: Podcast Dramaturgy and the Theatre of the Mind” because of the way it “detaches drama from the economic, institutional and political requirements of the radio broadcast” (189). The vast trove of alternative, ‘unsanctioned’ voices podcasting has made audible can be said to resonate with the discernible hum of difference, the form itself can be understood as inherently dissonant. Its fundamental alterity imbues it with the affective essence of dissonance that Sean Gurd articulates in Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece (2016) as “extra-audible information…[a kind of] roughness, a richer, grainier, less-polished sound” (11). The sense of palpable auditory/affective ‘roughness’ or dissonance permeates Homecoming sonic world, frequently in the foregrounded presence of sonic ‘dirtiness’ but always in its distinctive non-linear assemblage and in its inherent critique of the far-reaching and devastating impacts of war. Homecoming’s audio and structural strategies, shifting both temporally and between sonic modes, demand too that we, the listeners, like Walter and Heidi, are actively and continually engaged in the urgent process of attempting to find our bearings, to get ourselves ‘situated.’
Featured Image: “American Redaction,” by Jared Rodriguez / truthout (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Miranda Wilson is a Creative Practice Ph.D. Candidate in Film Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her creative and scholarly thesis (Supervisor, Prof. Annie Goldson) interrogates and experiments with the ways in which voice/image positioning in documentary can and might invigorate screen space as a site of common space and counter-space. Her research encompasses strategies of indirect representation, in particular with regard to gender and voice/image relations; ensemble narratives that work to de-centre the protagonist; low/no budget filmmaking methods that democratize the means of production and documentary practice that is as much about interrogating the documentary form as it is about the subject it engages with. The research project seeks to detect and articulate documentary space in which individuals cohere as a citizenry and everyday practices of democracy are enlivened. Miranda also holds a BA Honours (First Class) from the University of Auckland. Her graduate studies have encompassed research into sound and dissonance; sound/image relations; documentary theory and practice; and representations of spatial transgressions in cinema space.
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“A focus on listening [with technology] shifts the idea of freedom of speech from having a platform of expression to having the possibility of communication” (K. Lacey)
One of the biggest social media event of the past decade, #metoo stands out as a pivotal shift in the future of gender relations. Despite its persistence since October 2017, #metoo is still under-theorized, and since its permutations generate countless hashtag sub-categories each passing week, making sense of it presents a conceptual quagmire. Tracing its history, identifying key moments, mapping its pro- and counter-currents present equally tough challenges to both data science and feminist scholars.
Meta-communication about #metoo abounds. Infographics and visualizations attempt to contain its organic growth into perceivable maps and charts; pop news media constantly report on its evolution in likes, counts, and retweets, as well as—and increasingly—in number of convictions, lawsuits, and reports. At the same time, #metoo has arguably created a discernible listening public in the way that Kate Lacey (2013) argues emerged with national radio: women’s stories have never been listened to with such wide reach and rapt attention.
The project I discuss here takes ‘hearing’ #metoo a step further into the auditory realm in the form of data sonification so as to to re-imagine an audience compelled to earwitness not just the scope but the emotional impact of women’s stories. Data sonification is a growing field, which from its inception has crossed between art and science. It involves a conceptual or semantic translation of data into relevant sonic parameters in a way that utilizes perceptual gestalts to convey information through sound.
Brady Marks and I created the #metoo sonification you’ll hear below by drawing from a public dataset spanning October 2017 to the early Spring of 2018 obtained from data.world. Individual tweets using the hashtag are sonified using female battle cries from video games; the number of retweets and followers forms a sort of swelling and contracting background vocal texture to represent the reach of each message. The dataset is then sped up anywhere between 10x to 1000x in order to represent perceivable ebbs and flows of the hashtag’s life over time. The deliberate aim in this design was to convey a different sensibility of social media content, one that demands emotional and intellectual attention over a duration of time. Given Twitter’s visual zeitgeist whereby individual tweets are perceived at a glance and quickly become lost in the noise of the platform the affective attitude towards “contagious” events becomes arguably impersonal. A sonification such as this asks the listener to spend 30 minutes listening to 1 month of #metoo: something impossible to achieve on the actual platform, or in a single visualization. The aim, then, is to interrupt social media’s habitual and disposable engagements with pressing civic debates.
A critique of big data visualization
To date, there have been more than 19 million #MeToo tweets from over 85 countries; on Facebook more than 24 million people participated in the conversation by posting, reacting, and commenting over 77 million times since October 15, 2017. In a global information society ‘big data’ is translated into creative infographics in order to simultaneously educate an overwhelmed public and elicit urgency and accord for political action. Yet ideological and political considerations around the design of visual information have lagged behind enthusiasm for making data ‘easy to understand’. At the other end of the spectrum, social media delivers personalized micro-trends directly and in real time to always-mobile users, reinforcing their information silos (Rambukkana 2015). Between these extremes, the mechanisms by which relevant local, marginalized or emergent issues come to be communicated to the wider public are constrained.
With this big idea in mind, the question we ask here is what would it mean to hear data? Emergent work in sonification suggests that sound may afford a unique way to experience large-scale data suitable for raising public awareness of important current issues (Winters & Weinberg 2015). The uptake of sonification by the artistic community (see Rory Viner, Robert Alexander, among many others) signals its strengths in producing affective associations to data for non-specialized audiences, despite its shortcomings as a scientific analysis tool (Supper, 2018). Some of the more esoteric uses of sonification have been in the service of capturing what Supper calls ‘the sublime’ – as in Margaret Schedel’s “Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification.”
Who’s listening on social media?
Within the Western canon of sound studies “constitutive technicities” (Gallope 2011) or what Sterne calls “perceptual technics” embody historically situated ways of listening that center technology as a co-defining factor in our relationship with sound. Within this frame, media sociologist Kate Lacey traces the emergence of the modern listening public through the history of radio. Using the metaphor of ‘listening in” and “listening out,” Lacey reframes media citizenship by pointing out that listening is a cultural as well as a perceptual act with defined political dimensions:
Listening out is the practice of being open to the multiplicity of texts and voices and thinking of texts in the context of and in relation to a difference and how they resonate across time and in different spaces. But at the same time, it is the practice and experience of living in a media age that produces and heightens the requirement, the context, the responsibilities and the possibilities of listening out (198)
According to Lacey, a focus on listening instead of spectatorship challenges the implicit active/passive dualism of civic participation in Western contexts. More importantly, she argues, we need to move away from the notion of “giving voice” and instead create meaningful possibilities to listen, in a political sense. Data sonification doesn’t so much ‘give voice to the voiceless’ but creates a novel relationship to perceiving larger patterns and movements.
Our interactions with media, therefore, are always already presumptive of particular dialogical relations. Every speech act, every message implies a listening audience that will resonate understanding. In other words, how are we already listening in to #metoo? How and why might data sonification enable us to “listen out” for it instead? In order to get a different hearing, what should #metoo sound like?
Sonifying #metoo: the battle cries of gender-based violence
It is unrealistic to expect that your everyday person will read large archives of testimony on sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Because of their massive scale, archives of #metoo testimony pose a significant challenge to the possibility for meaningful communication around this issue. Essentially drowning each other out, individual voices remain unheard in the zeitgeist of media platforms that automates quantification while speeding up engagement with individual contributions. To reaffirm the importance of voice would mean to reaffirm inter-subjectivity and to recognize polyphony as an “existential position of humanity” (Ihde 2007, 178). This was the problem to sonify here: how to retain individual voices while creating the possibility for listening to the whole issue at hand. Inspired by the idea of listening out, myself and artist collaborator Brady Marks set out to sonify #metoo as a way of eliciting the possibility for a new listening public.
The #metoo sonification project intersected deeply with my work on the female voice in videogames. My choice to use a mixed selection of battle cry samples from Soul Calibur, an arcade fighting game, was intuitive. Battle cries are pre-recorded banks of combat sounds that video game characters perform in the course of the story. Instances of #metoo on Twitter presumably represent the experiences of individual women, pumping a virtual fist in the air, no longer silent about the realities of gender-based violence. So hearing #metoo posts as battle cries of powerful game heroines made sense to me. But it’s the meta layers of meaning that are even more intuitive: as I’ve discussed elsewhere, female battle cries are notoriously gendered and sexualized. Listening to a reel of sampled battle cries is almost indistinguishable from listening to a pornographic soundscape. Abstracted in this sonification, away from the cartoonish hyper-reality of a game world, these voices are even more eerie, giving almost physical substance to the subject matter of #metoo. Just as the female voice in media secretly fulfils the furtive desires of the “neglected erogenous zone” of the ear (Pettman 2017, 17), #metoo is an embodiment of the conflation of sex with consent: the basis of what we now call ‘rape culture.’
Sonifying real-time data such as Twitter presents not only semantic (how should it sound like) but also time-scale challenges. If we are to sonify a month – e.g. the month of November 2017 (just weeks after the explosion of #metoo) – but we don’t want to spend a month listening, then that involves some conceptual time-scaling. Time-scaling means speeding up instances that already happen multiple times a second on a platform as instantaneous and global as Twitter. Below are samples of three different sonifications of #metoo data, following different moments in the initial explosion of the hashtag and rendered at different time compressions. Listen to them one at a time and note your sensual and emotive experience of tweets closer to real-time playback, compared to the audible patterns that emerge from compressing longer periods of time inside the same length audio file. You might find that the density is different. Closer to real-time the battle cries are more distinctive, while at higher time compressions what emerges instead is an expanding and contracting polyphonic texture.
Vocalizations of female pleasure/affect, video game battle cries already have a special relationship to technologies of audio sampling and digital reproduction as Corbett & Kapsalis describe in “Aural sex: the female orgasm in popular sound.” This means that the perceptual technics involved in listening to recorded female voices are already coded with sexual connotations. Battle cries in games are purposely exaggerated so as to carry the bulk of emotional content in the game’s experiential matrix. Roland Barthes’ notion of the “grain of the voice”—the presence of the body in (singing) voice—is frequently evoked in describing the substantive role that game voices play in the construction of game world immersion and realism. In the #metoo sonification, I decontextualize the grain of the voice—there are no visual images, narrative, or gameplay; the battle cries are also acousmatic, in that there are no bodies visually represented from which these sounds emanate.
The battle cry in this #metoo sonification is the ultimate disembodied voice, resisting what Kaja Silverman (1988) calls the “norm of synchronization” with a female body in The Acoustic Mirror (83). As acousmatic voices, these battle cries could be said to exist on a different conceptual and perceptual plane, “disturbing the taxonomies upon which patriarchy depends,” to quote Dominic Pettman in Sonic Intimacy. (22). In other words, the sounds exist in a boundary space between combat sounds and orgasmic sounds highlighting for the listener the dissonance between the supposed empowerment of ‘speaking out’ within a culture that remains staunchly set up to sexualize women; something one can hardly ignore given the media’s reserved treatment of #metoo.
Liberated from the game world these voices now speak for themselves in the #metoo sonification, their sensuality all the more hyper-real. The player has no control here, as the battle cries are not linked to specific game actions, rather they are synchronized autonomously to instances of #metoo confessionals. In fact, the density of the sonification as time speeds up will overwhelm listeners with its boundlessness; echoing how contemporary media treats the sounds of the female orgasm as a renewable and inexhaustible resource, even as reports of sexual harassment and gender-based violence continue to pile on in 2021. Yet we intend that the subject matter resists pleasure, rendering the sonic experience traumatic as the chilling realization sets in that listeners are hailed to accountability by #metoo. The experience should instead be unsettling, impactful, grotesque, and deeply embodied.
Listening both metaphorically and literally goes to the very heart of questions to do with the politics and experience of living and communicating in the media age. In her paper on the sonic geographies of the voice, AM Kanngieser notes in “A Sonic Geography of Voice“: “The voice, in its expression of affective and ethico-political forces, creates worlds” (337). It is not just in the grain but in the enunciation that battle cries find their political significance in this sonification. As the hyper-real gasps and moans of game heroines animate individual moments of #metoo the codification of cartoonish voices resists being subconsciously “absorbed into the dialogic exchange” (342) of habitual media consumption. Listening to the sonification is instead an experience of re-coding the voice, reconfiguring the embedded meanings of game sound to a new and contradictory context: a space that challenges neoliberal appropriations of radical communication and discourse (348). This is not data sonification that delights the listener or simply grants them access to ‘information’ in a different format; rather it calls on the listener to de-normalize their received technicity and perceptions and to connect to the emotional inter-subjectivity of this call to action.
Most importantly, the #metoo sonification invites the auditeur to listen in, to take an active role in the reconfiguration of meanings and absorb their political dimensions. These are the stories of #metoo; these are the voices of women, of men, of marginalized peoples, emerging from the zeitgeist of Twitter to ask us to earwitness gender-based violence. We are a new listening public, wanting and needing to create new worlds. A critical bandwidth is the smallest perceivable unit of auditory change, in psychology terms. This sonification begs the question, how many battle cries will it take for us to end gender-based violence by fostering equitable worlds?
Milena Droumeva is an Assistant Professor and the Glenfraser Endowed Professor in Sound Studies at Simon Fraser University specializing in mobile media, sound studies, gender, and sensory ethnography. Milena has worked extensively in educational research on game-based learning and computational literacy, formerly as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University. Milena has a background in acoustic ecology and works across the fields of urban soundscape research, sonification for public engagement, as well as gender and sound in video games. Current research projects include sound ethnographies of the city (livable soundscapes), mobile curation, critical soundmapping, and sensory ethnography. Check out Milena’s Story Map, “Soundscapes of Productivity” about coffee shop soundscapes as the office ambience of the creative economy freelance workers.
Milena is a former board member of the International Community on Auditory Displays, an alumni of the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University, and former Research Think-Tank and Academic Advisor in learning innovation for the social enterprise InWithForward. More recently, Milena serves on the board for the Hush City Mobile Project founded by Dr. Antonella Radicchi, as well as WISWOS, founded by Dr. Linda O Keeffe.
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