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Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

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My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

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“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

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Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

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Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*

*Dedicated to the love we hear in our mothers’ accents. This post is co-authored by Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas

The Cinco de Mayo season showcases troubling instances of Spanish being mocked. Corporate ‘merica profits from Drinko de Mayo when menus advertise “el happy hour”; words like “fiesta” and “amigo” are overused; and Spanish hyperanglicized for laughs (one of the worst: “COM-PREN-DAY”).  These acts of linguistic privilege, according to Jane Hill, elevate whiteness in public spaces. What is heard as playful for the dominant ear is simply an acoustic representation of the racist appropriation of mustaches, sombreros, and sarapes.

CinKO de Mayo(naise)

Fiesta like there’s no mañana

Said no Juan ever

That said, bilennials have struck back.

Last year, the Latino digital platform, we are mitú, published a list that resonated with its young, bicultural readers, those long accustomed to hearing Spanish Accented English (SAE) as part of their everyday speech: 17 Popular Brand Logos If They Looked The Way Your Parents Pronounce Them.  This humorous phonetic play in the face of complaints about foreign accents being unintelligible or moral indignation over immigrants who do not learn English with native-like proficiency re-directs our attention to digital, engaged Spanish-English bilingual communities. Like Chicana/o listening practices, these digital memes, gifs, and lists embrace how these accents invoke sounds of survival, solidarity and place making.

Con Fleis (Corn Flakes)

Gualmar (Wal-Mart)

Feisbu (Facebook)

Cosco (Costco)

 

 

The witty Buzzfeed-ish list re-spelled English-language global logos in Mexican, immigrant styled phonetics to reflect how said stores, brands, and social media sites are heard within Spanish-dominant or bilingual speaking communities. The absence of letters (Cosco) and/or the substitution of letters (Gualmar) induce an “accented” non-English dominant speech, dislodging standard rules about English-language spelling and pronunciation. Readers chuckled at seeing immigrant, ESL (English as a Second Language), phonetic speech in print – a tactic Sara V. Hinojos refers to in her media writings as a visual accent, or a visual vocabulary based on sound.

In order to “get” the humor behind the wave of memes and gifs that use Spanish Accented English (SAE), Chicana/o readers rely much more on their listening ears than their eyes to understand how these accents are voiced in print. Here, listening to accents operates as a popular form of literacy, one that registers the audible, racialized experiences of Spanish-speaking immigrants.  Of course, the use of creative, rasquache forms of humor have long been a hallmark aspect of Chicana/o humor. Yet listening to these digital literacies, especially within the contemporary “build the wall yet eat the taco” era, help make these accents legible.

Estop (Stop)

Eschool (School)

Espray (Sprite)

 

Certainly, some vocal accents are audibly more patent to select ears than others. Accents work to socially and geographically locate speakers; for instance, often racially indexing Spanish Accented English speakers as Mexican (regardless of nationality), immigrant (regardless of citizenship), and/or poor (regardless of occupation). Sociocultural linguists remind us that accents, word choice, vocal tone and other sound qualities of language are a part of a larger Bourdieu-ian rubric of linguistic capital.  Social psychologists consistently demonstrate that listeners make “moral, intellectual, and aesthetic judgments of others based on language use and accent alone.” For scholars of race and sound, accents comprise part of a sonic color line; a socially constructed aural boundary that aligns accented English speech as non-white and non-accented (or Midwestern) English as white.  Vocal neutrality, like whiteness itself, operates invisibly as privilege usually does.

Jess (Yes)

Brefas (Breakfast)

Effectively “reading” a visual accent does not privilege a bilingual speaker but rather an accented listener, one raised or surrounded by immigrant speakers. The humorous phonetic play of a visual accent symbolically challenges the capitalist logic that a “neutral accent” or non-accent in English holds immense Western value.  For those of us with accented speakers in our families and communities, accents function as emotional markers; vocal or vernacular archives that trace an individual or family’s migration, travels and/or histories.  As Denice Forham shares poetically about her Puerto Rican mother’s accent, “even when her lips can barely stress themselves around English, her accent is a stubborn compass, always pointing her towards home.” For our families, accents evince the affective labor entailed in retraining tongues, in learning new idioms, and general struggles to converse in Inglish.

(when your grandmother wants to motivate you)

Using the name of a popular Mexican sweet bread (conchas) as a substitute for “conscious” upsets Western, phonetic understandings of “scious” in favor of a phonetic, Mexican stand-in. Concha, a sea shelled shaped sweet bread, associated with female genitalia and used in digital Latino communities has become a symbol for body positive inclusion; an insistence to not feel “self conchas” when eating (see Nalgona Positivity and SOMAR ATX). These memes privilege an accented listener, a feminist sensibility, as well as a panadería connoisseur.

The mega-for-profit-English-teaching-colonial organization, known as Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), explains that the lack of distinction in the Spanish language between a short and long vowel – for instance ship/sheep  – causes miscomprehension for assumed-yet-never-named native English listeners. Those learning English as a Second Language are encouraged to first reorient their own ears to listen to the subtlety between pull/pool before grasping the complexities of yacht/jot. The communicative burden lies on the accented speaker rather than the non-accented listener. The visual accent places the onus on the English-dominant listener, effectively excluding them.

Trico Tri, Japi Jalogüín!

(Trick or Treat, Happy Halloween!)

Despite the fact that the United States represents the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Spanish maintains a racialized, classed and “second-tiered” status within the United States imaginary (see Bonnie Urciuoli; Jane Hill; Jonathan Rosa; and D. Inés Casillas). These disparaging attitudes are evident when Spanish is prohibited in work places; when bilingual education and English Language Learner (ELL) programs are eliminated at ballot boxes; or when public school teachers are removed from posts based on their “heavy accents.” Institutional efforts to tame bilingual, accented tongues are less about speech and much more about accommodating the dominant, white listening ear.

According to Jennifer Stoever, the listening ear refers to dominant listening practices. Listening, she argues, is an embodied cultural practice that influences one’s position to power. “As the dominant ‘listening ear’ is disciplined to process white male ways of sounding as default—natural, normal, and desirable—alternate ways of listening and sounding are deemed aberrant and, depending upon the historical context, as excessively sensitive, strikingly deficient, or impossibly both.” Therefore the dominant listening ear not only tunes out “other” sounds but also treats them as illegitimate because they deviate from what sounds “normal” (read: white).

Cálmate Carnal, Tey Quirisi

(Relax Friend, Take it easy)

Gail Shuck found that white, native English-speaking college students construct an ideological distinction between Us and Them; gesturing to a sonic color line. Compellingly, she reported how American tourists in Mexico would describe native Spanish speakers as “heavily accented.” Yes. The communicative proficiency of Spanish by Mexicans in Mexico continued to be scrutinized by native English-language listeners.

Churro Know My Life

Cinco de Mayo has versed us too well on the visual markers of racism like oversized sombreros, felt mustaches, and cheap beer pursuits, all a part of the commercial exploitation of Mexican communities in the U.S. But then phrases such as “Grassy Ass” or “No Problem-o” are heard bitterly as recurrent reminders that our language and accents are policed with the same fervor as our bodies. The inventive use of the visual accent archives how we listen, privileging the accented ear.  The loving jest that enwraps these digital literacies reminds us to never lose our accents.

Sara Veronica Hinojos is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor and Scholar with the Center for Mexican American Studies and Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston (2016-2018). She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in Chicana and Chicano Studies. Her research focuses on Chicana/o and Latina/o Media, the Politics of Language, and Humor. 
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Dolores Inés Casillas is associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy (2014) was published by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series.

SO! Amplifies: Anne Le Troter’s “Bulleted List”

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Nestled deep in a corner of Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, Anne Le Troter’s sound piece “Bulleted List” invites the museum’s visitors to explore the social similarities that people verbally express in response to cold calls. Le Troter’s first solo show to be on display in Paris, the work invites the audience to sit inside a modified cinema amphitheater as the sounds of recorded people answering survey queries echo throughout the sloped room. The seating arrangement inside the exhibition mirrors the cubicle-style setup of a call center, though each “station” consists solely of an outline designating where to sit and a coordinating amplifier. Both the questions and answers in the sound piece are produced by real survey callers; each voice sounds polished, poised and mechanized from years of vocal experience, revealing the automated nature that comes with the territory of making a scripted call. The result of each recorded voice unto the listener is akin to standing in the center of a symphony, with vocal patterns as punctuated as a visual, typographic list.

At the Palais de Tokyo I set up a play of light, a new element in my work, which gives visitors a time reference, even if they arrive half way through. Each broadcast is incidentally interspersed with a long silence to emphasize the idea of a session. This determines the attention span given to a work. The collective listening situation I find especially interesting because it reveals a set of patterns of behaviour, a whole language of bodies and eyes between the spectators. These micro-actions, just like the mental paratext of visitors and pollsters (those words that are not uttered but which ring out in our heads when we think or write), swell the work.  –Anne Le Troter, interview with Raphael Brunel

Still of Anne Le Troter’s “Bulleted List” at the Palais de Tokyo, image by author

The progression of sounds in the exhibition follow a distinct, if not choppy routine, with a clearly enunciated polling question asked — “What is your relationship status?” for example — followed by equally simplistic answers — “widowed,” “married” and “couple,” to note a few.   Reflective of the exhibition’s timely concurrence with the French presidential election, each of the questions asked in the sound piece culminates in a political questionnaire, with the same questions and answers being traded back and forth between people in all areas of the political spectrum — indicating that there are fewer differences between the various polling demographics and how they express their opinions than what appears at first glance.

“Bulleted List” opened at the Palais de Tokyo on Feb. 3, 2017, and will close on May 8.

Anne Le Troter was born in 1985 and currently lives in Paris. She graduated from the Geneva School of Art and Design in 2012, and her first solo shows were held at the Arnaud Deschin Gallery (Paris, 2016), BF15 (Lyon, 2015), Espace Crosnier (Geneva, 2015) and Espace Quark (Geneva, 2014). In 2016, she was awarded the Grand Prix at the 61st Salon de Montrouge.

Featured Image: Still of Anne Le Troter’s “Bulleted List” taken by the author

Shauna Bahssin is a sophomore at Binghamton University who double-majors in English and art history. She currently serves as the copy desk chief for the student newspaper, Pipe Dream, and has written for its news and arts and culture sections in the past. Outside of the paper, she is involved with the university’s fundraising initiatives through the Binghamton Telefund, and she hopes to work within the field of arts development and advancement after she graduates.

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On Ventriloquism, Dummies, and Trump’s Voice

A few weeks ago, I wrote my dissertation’s epilogue on Trump as a ventriloquist’s dummy without a ventriloquist. At that point I was still ignorantly assuming that things wouldn’t go the way they did. I looked back at these words yesterday and was struck by what still resonated and what I got so, so wrong.
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Even a dummy can hear that the bygone “America” invoked by the current U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s popular slogan “Make America Great Again” is a resonant echo of the “America” lambasted by Richard and Willie’s radical vinyl ventriloquism in the era of the U.S. Bicentennial forty years ago. This fantasy “America”—as the black ventriloquist duo, alongside their inspiration Richard Pryor, pointed out in 1976—conveniently guts U.S. history, eliding the nation’s enduring legacies of genocide and slavery and shilling the myth of the country’s originary whiteness.
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It is not, however, Trump’s campaign slogan that ultimately captivates the audiences—that “galvanizes the base,” as it were—of the much beloved and much ridiculed businessman, reality television star, and now, non-metaphorical politician. Rather, Trump’s appeal seems to stem from his propensity for “saying what we all want to say but can’t say.”  Indeed, Trump has positioned himself as a “voice,” as the voice, that will finally speak out against the “politically correct” discourse that has silenced “the American people”: “The forgotten men and women of our country—people who work hard but no longer have a voice: I am your voice,” he declared at the close of the 2016 Republican National Convention. The real estate mogul-cum-TV-star-cum-politician is famous for speaking off-script, for “telling it like it is,” for staging the vocalization of things that, in Jeff Dunham’s words, “you could never say out loud.”
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As my dissertation “Anachronism Effects: Ventriloquism and Popular Media” shows, Trump’s celebrated ability to speak the allegedly unspeakable is a key function of the ventriloquist’s dummy (a function that, it should go without saying, has been put to varying ends). What distinguishes Trump from the usual political puppets, however, is the absence of a discernible ventriloquist. For unlike George W. Bush, who was constantly relegated to Vice President Dick Cheney’s knee during the seemingly endless period of the former’s dubious presidential career, Trump appears beholden to no one, a horror movie ventriloquist’s dummy that uncannily operates on its own, like Corky Withers’ Fats.
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As a dummy without a ventriloquist, Trump can, and does, make a point of accusing his rivals of dummification. At the RNC, he framed Hillary Clinton as “a ‘puppet’ of corporations and elites…[sure to] ‘keep our rigged system in place.’”  Paradoxically, this kind of accusation is extremely effective amongst his supporters, who, ironically, love him for exemplifying the puppet’s freedom to spout whatever invective comes to mind. Surely the politician’s words matter, but my own feeling is that it matters less what Trump says and more that he has cultivated the appearance of saying something, really anything, that otherwise cannot be said.
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A close examination of his actual language reveals that there is still so much left unsaid by this high-profile dummy, so much that remains implicit within the chaotic, yet fundamentally interpretable, stream of consciousness that appears to constitute his discourse (for a discussion of the codedness of Trumpean language, see Chris A. Smith, “How Politicians Talk About Race and Gender Without Talking About Race and Gender”).   After all, like Dunham, Trump will name “Mexicans,” “immigrants,” and “Muslims,” as personae non grata in his “America,” but there are other groups he fails to indict as vociferously. Indeed, there are still things that this dummy “can’t say,” confirming the fact that “political correctness” informs Trump’s language just as much as it does many other politicians’. What differentiates him from the rest of the lot is the reigning fantasy, held by those on the left as well as on the right, that his strings have been cut, that he performs as freely and divinely as a Kleistian marionette.

The powerful fantasy of unbridled speech that attends to Trump has equally captivated Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, those on the supposedly opposite poles of our dual-party system. This is why liberal arguments whose heft hinges on the things Trump has said, citing their lack of logic, their fascistic bent, et cetera, will have utterly no bearing on the man’s popularity. Trump’s pull arises from his vocalization’s appearance as unfettered. And Trump well knows this, which is why he flouts teleprompts and cues, debate preparation, and “party lines.” His act may, as ventriloquist acts often do, end up going badly. My point, however, is that its allure is less about language and more about voice.

In a recent Washington Post article in early 2016, journalist Kevin Guo analyzed Trump’s accent, writing that
Trump’s supporters often praise how the politician gives voice to harsh truths. But that voice itself, that unmistakable instrument, has been a noteworthy element of Trump’s populist image. Though he grew up in privilege…Trump never shed his Queens accent. Today, that accent helps him summon the stereotype of the blunt, no-nonsense New Yorker.
The reporter has a point, that Trump’s accent, his New York inflection, makes him sound no-bullshit, even pragmatic, in spite of the politician’s immense wealth and privilege. Yet the analysis only goes so far. For the “forgotten” Americans to whose unspeakable longings Trump claims to give voice are largely not New Yorkers with Queens accents. (As an aside: Bernie Sanders undoubtedly also emits New York-accented speech, and though the two politicians’ bases have had some overlap, they generally have not appealed to the same constituencies.)
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Trump’s effectiveness, then, lies not in his language or even his “no-nonsense” accent, but in what communications scholar Jennifer Mercieca has identified as the rhetorical strategy of “paralipsis” in “How Donald Trump Gets Away With Saying Things Other Candidates Can’t.”  Writes Mercieca, “paralipsis…enables [Trump] to publicly say things he can later disavow,” later defining the Greek term as “(para, ‘side’ and leipein, ‘to leave’)…leave to the side.”  Once again, we must observe that “leaving to the side” is precisely what ventriloquism enacts, placing dummy alongside ventriloquist so that the former can say what the latter “can’t.” In Mercieca’s reading, Trump is both ventriloquist and dummy, able to speak the unspeakable in one voice and disavow that spoken unspeakable in a voice materially identical to the first.
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That Trumpism is ventriloquism, and not just in the metaphorical sense, has not gone lost on Terry Fator, who, as an actual ventriloquist and a proud Trump supporter, has been open about his appreciation of the politician’s artistry. “I’m a huge Trump fan,” he crowed on Fox News in May of 2016, affirming that he and his wife will vote for the politician come the 2016 presidential election. Fator appeared alongside a new puppet—a larger-than-life, toupee-crowned Trump dummy he recently added to his Vegas repertoire.
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“With somebody as colorful as Trump,” the ventriloquist began, “—and I don’t do anything derogatory,” he continued, cutting himself off mid-sentence, as Trump himself might have done. “It’s all fun,” Fator went on, “it’s like, you know, the hair,” he said, then doffing the puppet’s orange mop. “I don’t really do political humor,” he continued, “but really it’s how does Trump feel about something…. So I’m not making a political statement in my show; I’m letting Trump say what he feels about something….” After a few moments’ more banter with anchor Sean Hannity, Fator let Trump “say what he feels,” which amounted, quite simply, to the phrase “I’m gonna make Mexico pay for it!,” at which point Fator had the puppet sing a few bars from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
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Awkwardly, and for a few moments too long, Hannity laughed. The dummy hadn’t said much of “what he felt” about anything. He’d simply repeated Trump’s speech, like a broken record.
 Featured Image: Screen Capture by SO! Ed. JS
Sarah Kessler is a recent Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.  She received an M.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Kessler’s writing on art, film, and media has appeared in artforum.com, the Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and Public Books, among other publications, and she has held editorial positions at Triple Canopy and Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry

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