This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Carlo Patrão shares today, an examination of sounds that disturb, annoy, and threaten our mental health and well being. –Editor-in-Chief JS
An important factor in coming to dislike certain sounds is the extent to which they are considered meaningful. The noise of the roaring sea, for example, is not far from white radio noise (…) We still seek meaning in nature and therefore the roaring of the sea is a blissful sound. Torben Sangild, The Aesthetics of Noise
When hearing bodily sounds, we often react with discomfort, irritation, or even shame. The sounds of the body remind us of its fallible and vulnerable nature, calling to mind French surgeon René Leriche’s statement that “health is life lived in the silence of the organs” (1936). The mind rests when the inner works of the body are forgotten. Socially, sounds coming from the organic functions of the body such as chewing, lip smacking, breathing, sniffling, coughing, sneezing or slurping are considered annoying and perceived as intrusions. A recent study by Trevor Cox suggests that our reactions of disgust towards sounds of bodily excretions and secretions may be socially-learned and vary according to whether it is considered acceptable or unacceptable to make such sounds in public.
However, for people suffering from a condition called Misophonia, these bodily sounds aren’t simply annoying, rather they become sudden triggers of aggressive impulses and involuntary fight or flight responses. Misophonia, meaning hatred of sound, is a chronic condition characterized by highly negative emotional responses to auditory triggers, which include repetitive and social sounds produced by another person, like hearing someone eating an apple, crunching chips, slurping on a soup spoon or even breathing.
The consequences of Misophonia can be very troublesome, leading to social isolation or the continuous avoidance of certain places and situations such as family dinners, the workplace and recreational activities like going to the cinema. While rate of occurrence of new cases of Misophonia in the population is still under investigation, the fast growing number of online communities gathered around the dislike of certain sounds may indicate that this condition is more common than previously thought.
But why do people with Misophonia feel such strong reactions to trigger sounds? This fundamental question remains up for debate. Some audiologists suggest these heightened emotional responses can be explained by hyperconnectivity between the auditory, limbic and autonomic nervous systems. However, we continue to lack a comprehensive theoretical model to understand Misophonia, as well as an effective treatment to help sufferers of Misophonia cope with intrusive sound triggers.
The Art of Annoyance: is it possible to reframe misophonic trigger sounds as misophonic music?
Between 1966 and 1967, John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended radio conversations, called Radio Happenings (WBAI, NYC). Among many topics, Feldman and Cage address the problem of being constantly intruded upon by unpleasant sounds. Feldman narrates his annoyance with the sounds blasted from several radios on a trip to the beach. Cage’s commentary on the growing annoyance of his friend reveals a shift of perception in dealing with unwanted sounds:
Well, you know how I adjusted to that problem of the radio in the environment (…) I simply made a piece using radios. Now, whenever I hear radios – even a single one, not just twelve at a time, as you must have heard on the beach, at least – I think, “Well, they’re just playing my piece.-– John Cage, Radio Happenings.
Cage proposes a remedy via appropriation of environmental intrusions. The negative emotional charge associated with them is neutralized. Sound intrusions no longer exist as absolute external entities trying to intrude their way in. They become part of the self. Ultimately, there are no sonic intrusions, as the entire field of sound is desirable for composition.
Cage’s immersive compositional anticipated an important strategy to build resilience towards aversive sound: exposure-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, which proposes a gradual immersion in trigger sounds. And I suggest we can mine the history of avant-garde practice to productively further the idea of immersion; in the realms of sound poetry, utterance based music, Fluxus events and many other sound art practices, bodily sounds have consistently been exalted as source of composition and performance. Much like Cage did with what he perceived as intrusive radio sounds, by performing chewing, coughs, slurps and hiccups, assembling snores and nose whistles, and singing the poetics of throat clearing, we may be able to elevate our body awareness and challenge the way we perceive unwanted sounds. In what follows, I sample these works with an ear toward misophonia, discussing their interventions in the often jarring world of everyday irritation.
As pointed out by Nancy Perloff, while the avant-garde progressively expanded to incorporate the entire scope of sound into composition, sound poetry followed a similar course by playing with the non-semantic proprieties of language and exploring new vocal techniques. The Russian avant-garde (zaum), the Italian futurists (parole in libertà) and the German Dada (Hugo Ball’s verse ohne Worte) built the foundations of a new oral hyper-expression of the body through moans, clicks, hisses, hums, whooshes, whizzes, spits, and breaths.
Henri Chopin, Les Pirouettes Vocales Pour Les Pirouettements Vocaux
Sound poets like Henri Chopin created uncanny sonic textures by only using ‘vocal micro-particles’, revealing a sounding body that can be violent and intrusive. François Dufrêne and Gil J Wolman brought forward more raw and glottal performances.
Bridging the gap between the Schwitter’s Dada-constructivism and a contemporary approach to sound poetry, Jaap Blonk’s inventive vocal performances cover a wide range of mouth sounds. In the same vein, Paul Dutton explores the limits of his voice, glottis, tongue, lips and nose as the medium for compositions — as can be heard on the record Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging.
Paul Dutton, Lips Is, Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging
Fluxus: Eat, Chew, Burp, Cough, Perform!
The Event is a metarealistic trigger: it makes the viewer’s or user’s experience special. (…) Rather than convey their own emotional world abstractly, Fluxus artists directed their audiences’ attention to concrete everyday stuff addressing aesthetic metareality in the broadest sense. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience
The emergence of Fluxus is strongly linked to Cage’s 1957-59 class at New School for Social Research in NYC. George Bretch’s Event Score was one of the best known innovations to emerge from these classes. The Event Score was a performance technique drawn from short instructions that framed everyday life actions as minimal performances. Daily acts like chewing, coughing, licking, eating or preparing food were considered by themselves ready-made works of art. Many Fluxus artists such as Shigeko Kubota, Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Alison Knowles saw these activities as forms of social music.
Also, Mieko Shiomi‘s Shadow Piece No. 3 calls attention to the sound of amplified mastication, while Philip Corner’s piece Carrot Chew Performance is solely centered in the activity of chewing a carrot.
Philip Corner, Carrot Chew Performance, Tellus #24
In Nivea Cream Piece (1962), Alison Knowles invites the performers to rub their hands with cream in front of a microphone, producing a deluge of squeezing sounds:
Alison Knowles – Nivea Cream Piece (1962) – for Oscar (Emmett) Williams
Coughing is a form of love.
In 1961, the Fluxus artist Yoko Ono composed a 32 minute, 31 second audio recording called Cough Piece, a precursor to her instruction Keep coughing a year (Grapefruit). In this recording, the sound of Ono’s cough emerges periodically from the indistinct background noise. The Cough Piece plays with the concept of time, prolonging the duration of an activity beyond what is considered socially acceptable. While listening to this piece, Yoko Ono brings us close to her body’s automatic reflexes, pulling back the veil of an indistinct inner turmoil. Coughing can be a bodily response to an irritating tickling feeling, troubled breathing, a sore throat or a reaction to foreign particles or microbes. In response, coughing is a way of clearing, a freeing re-flux of air, a way out. Coughing is a form of love.
Yoko Ono – Cough Piece
In the work The Ego and the Id (1923), Sigmund Freud stated that the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations. The psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu expanded this idea by suggesting that early experiences of sound are crucial to consolidate the infant’s ego. The bath of sounds surrounding the child created by the parent’s voices and their soothing sounds provides a sonorous envelope or an audio-phonic skin that protects the child against ego-assailing noises and helps the creation of the first boundaries between the inside and the external world. The lack of a satisfactory sound envelope may compromise the development of a proper sense of self, leaving it vulnerable to invasions from outside.
It’s no surprise that conditions like Misophonia exist and are very common among us, considering how important our early exposure to sound is in building our sense of self and our sensory limits. For Misophonics, the everyday sounds we make without even thinking about them can be the source of a fractured and disruptive experience that we should not dismiss as the overreactions of a sensitive person. During the month we observe World Listening Day, our discourse usually praises the pleasures of listening and tends to focus on the sounds that soothe rather than annoy. However, conditions like Misophonia show us that there is much more that needs to be said on the subject of unpleasant sound experience. I can’t help but notice a disconnect between the vast exploration of annoying and irritating sounds in the avant-garde and the critical discourse in our sound communities that is dominated by the pleasures of listening. Cage’s call to embrace intrusive sounds urges us to consider all sounds regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of our emotions. For all of us who would consider ourselves philophonics, let’s create a critical discourse that addresses the struggles of listening as much as its pleasures.
Thanks to Jennifer Stoever for the thoughtful suggestions.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, a heaping plate of food sounds from Steph Ceraso, and crowd chants courtesy of Kariann Goldschmidt‘s work on live events in Brazil, our summer Sound and Pleasure comes to a stirring (and more intimate) conclusion. Tune into Justyna Stasiowska‘s frequency below. And thanks for engaging the pleasure principle this summer!--JS, Editor-in-Chief
One of my greatest pleasures is lying in bed, eyes closed and headphones on. I attune to a single stimuli while being enveloped in sound. Using sensory deprivation techniques like blindfolding and isolating headphones is a simple recipe for relaxation, but the website Digital Drugs offers you more. A user can play their mp3 files and surround themselves with an acoustical downpour that increases and then develops into gradient waves. The user feels as if in a hailstorm, surrounded by this constant gritty aural movement. Transfixed by the feeling of noise, the outside seems indistinguishable from inside.
Sold by the i-Doser company, Digital Drugs use mp3 files to deliver binaural beats in order to “simulate a desired experience.” The user manual advises lying in a dark and silent room with headphones on when listening to the recording. Simply purchase the mp3, and fill the prescription by listening. Depending on user needs, the experience can be preprogrammed with a specific scenario. This way users can condition themselves using Digital Drugs in order to feel a certain way. The user can control the experience by choosing the “student” or “confidence” dose suggestive of whether you’d like your high like a mild dose of marijuana or an intense dose of cocaine. The receiver is able to perceive every reaction of their body as a drug experience, which they themselves produced. The “dosing” of these aural drugs is restricted by a medical warning and “dose advisors” are available for consultation.
Thus, the overall presentation of Digital Drugs resembles a crisscross of medicine and narcotic clichés with the slogan “Binaural Brainwave doses for every imaginable mood.” While researching the phenomena of Digital Drugs, I have tried not to dismiss them as another gimmick or a new age meditation prop. Rather, I argue the I-Doser company offers a simulation of a drug experience by using the discourse of psychoactive substances to describe sounds: the user becomes an actor taking part in a performance.
By tracing these strategies on a macro and micro scale I show a body emerging from a new paradigm of health. I argue that we have become a psychosomatic creature called the inFORMational body: a body that is formed by information, which shapes practices of health undertaken to feel good and form us. This body is networked, much like a fractal, and connects different agencies operating both in macro (society) and micro (individual) scales.
Macroscale Epidemy: The Power of Drug Representation
Heinrich Wilhelm Dove described binaural beats in 1839 as a specific brain stimuli resulting in low-frequency pulsations perceivable when two tones at slightly different frequencies are presented separately through stereo headphones to each of the subject’s ears. The difference between tones must be relatively small, only up to 30 Hz, and the tones themselves must not exceed 1000 Hz. Subsequently, scientific authorities presented the phenomena as a tool in stimulating the brain in neurological affliction therapy. Gerard Oster described the applications in 1968 and the Monroe Institute later continued this research in order to use binaural beats in meditation and “expanding consciousness” as a crucial part of self-improvement programs.
I-Doser then molded this foundational research into a narrative presenting binaural beats as a brain stimulation for a desired experience. The binaural beats can be simply understood as an acoustic phenomena with application in practices like meditation or medical therapy.
I-Doser also employs the unverified claims about binaural beats into a narration that consists of the scattered information about research; it connects these authorities with YouTube recordings of human reactions to Digital Drugs. Video testimonies of Digital Drugs users caused a considerable stir among both parents and teachers in American schools two years ago. An American school even banned mp3 players as a precautionary measure. In the You Tube video one can see a person lying with headphones on. After a while we see an involuntary body movement that in some videos might resemble a seizure. Losing control over one’s body becomes the highlight of the footage alongside a subjective account also present in the video. The body movements are framed as a drug experience both for the viewer who is a vicarious witness and the participant who has an active experience.
This type of footage as evidence was popularized as early as the 1960s when military footage showed reactions to psychoactive substances such as LSD.
In the same manner as the Digital Drugs video, the army footage highlights the process of losing control over one’s body, complete with subjective testimonies as evidence of the psychoactive substance’s power.
This kind of visualization is usually fueled by paranoia, akin to Cold War fears, depicting daily attacks by an invisible enemy upon unaware subjects. The information of the authority agencies about binaural beats created a reference base that fueled the concern framing the You Tube videos as evidence of drug experience. It shows that the angst isn’t triggered by technology, in this case Digital Drugs, but by the form in which the “invisible attack” is presented: through sound waves. The manner of framing is more important than the hypothetical action itself. Context then changes recognition.
Microscale Paradigm Shift: Health as Feeling
On an individual level, did feeling better always mean being healthy? In Histoire des pratiques de santé. Le sain et le malsain depuis le MoyenAge, Georges Vigarello, continuator of the Foucault School of Biopolitics, explains that well-being became a medicalized condition in the 20th century with growing attention to mental health. Being healthy was no longer only about the good condition of the body but became a state of mind; feeling was important as an overall recognition of oneself. In the biopolitical perspective, Vigarello points out, health became more than just the government’s concern for individual well-being but was maintained by medical techniques and technologies.
In the case of Digital Drugs the well-being of children was safely governed by parents and media coverage creating prevention in schools from the “sound drugs.” Similarly, the UAE called for a ban on “hypnotic music” citing it as an illegal drug like cannabis or ecstasy. Using this perspective, I would add that feeling better, then, becomes a never-ending warfare; well-being becomes understood as a state (as in condition and as in governed territory).
Well-being is also an obligation to society, carried out by specific practices. What does a healthy lifestyle actually mean? Its meaning includes self-governance: controlling yourself, keeping fit, discipline (embodying the rules). In order to do it you need guidance: the need for authorities (health experts and trainers) and common knowledge (the “google it” modus operandi). All of these agencies create a strategy to make you feel good every day and have a high performance rate. Digital Drugs, then, become products that promise to boost up your energy, make you more endurable, and extend your mind capabilities. High performance is redefined as a state that enables instant access to happiness, pleasure, relaxation.
Vigarello reflects that understanding health in terms of low/high performance—itself based on the logic of consumption—created the concept of a limitless enhancement. Here, he refers to the information model, connecting past assumptions about health with a technique of self-governing. It is based on senses and an awareness of oneself using “intellectual” practices like relaxation and “probing oneself” (or knowing what vitamins you should take). The medical apparatus’s priority, moreover, shifted from keeping someone in good health to maintaining well-being. The subjective account became the crucial element of a diagnosis, supporting itself on information from different sources in order to imply the feeling of a limitless “better.” This strategy relies strongly on the use of technologies, the consideration of a sensual aspect and self-recognition—precisely the methodology used for Digital Drugs’ focus on enhancing wellbeing.
Still, this inFORMational body needs a regulatory system. How do we know that we really feel better? Apart from the media well-being campaign (and the amount of surveillance it involves), we are constantly asked about our health status in the common greeting phrase, but its unheimlich-ness only becomes apparent for non-anglo-saxon speakers. These checkpoint techniques become an everyday instrument of discipline and rely on an obligation to express oneself in social interactions.
So how do we feel? As for now, everything seems “OK.”
Featured image: “Biophonic Garden” by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Justyna Stasiowska is a PhD student in the Performance Studies Department at Jagiellonian University. She is preparing a dissertation under the working title: “Noise. Performativity of Sound Perception” in which she argue that frequencies don’t have a strictly programmed effect on the receiver and the way of experiencing sounds is determined by the frames or modes of perception, established by the situation and cognitive context. Justyna earned her M.A in Drama and Theater Studies. Her thesis was devoted to the notion of liveness in the context of the strategies used by contemporary playwrights to manipulate the recipients’ cognitive apparatus using the DJ figure. You can find her on Twitter and academia.edu.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games–Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo
On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice—Yvon Bonenfant
This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the third installment in our month-long exploration of listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18, 2012. For the full introduction to the series click here. To peep the previous posts, click here. Otherwise, prepare yourself to listen carefully as Mack Hagood contemplates how sound studies scholars can help tinnitus sufferers (and vice versa). –JSA
One January morning in 2006, Joel Styzens woke up and life sounded different. Superimposed over the quiet ambience of his Chicago apartment was a cluster of sounds: pure, high-pitched tones like those of a hearing test. Loud, steady, and constant, they weren’t going away. He walked to the bathroom to wash his face. “As soon as I turned on the water on the faucet,” he told me in an interview, “the left ear was crackling… like, a speaker, you know, being overdriven.” Joel was 24 and a professional musician, someone who made his living through focused and detailed listening.
As days passed, he grew more fearful and depressed. For two months, he barely left the house. The air brakes of a city bus or a honking horn were painful and caused his heart to race. His sense of himself, his environment, and his identity as a musician were all undermined. This man who lived through his ears now faced the prospect of a life of tinnitus (ringing or other “phantom sounds”) and its frequent companion, hyperacusis (sound sensitivity sometimes accompanied by distortion). Joel could even identify the dominant pitch of his torment: it was A sharp.
We humanistic and qualitative sound scholars—particularly those of us focused on media and technology—can learn a lot from listening to tinnitus and the people who have it. Scholars of science and technology studies (STS) often utilize moments of technological breakdown to reveal the processes and mechanisms that constitute things we take for granted. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are, in the words of anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, “moments when hearing and listening break down” (629). Because sound scholars understand sound, hearing, and listening not only as the material effects of physics and physiology, but also as culturally and technologically emergent phenomena, we can potentially contribute much to the growing public conversation around tinnitus.
And there is a lot at stake. Tinnitus affects 10-15% of adults and is the top service-related disability affecting U.S. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are also fairly common among musicians who work in loud performance and media production environments. It is perhaps ironic, then, that mediated sound and music are audiologists’ primary tools in helping people recover from these conditions.
My own study of tinnitus centers on its articulation with audio-spatial media—devices such as bedside sound machines, white noise generators, and noise-canceling headphones, all used to fabricate a desired sense of space through sound. People with tinnitus are among the most avid users of these devices, carefully mediating their aural-spatial relations as tinnitus becomes more evident in quiet spaces and hyperacusis flares up in noisy ones. During my fieldwork in audiology clinics and conferences, tinnitus support groups, and online forums, I observed that audio media were being deployed as medicine and technologies of self-care. Gradually, I came to the realization that the experience, discourse, and treatment of tinnitus is always bound up in mediation. In fact, I believe that tinnitus signals the highly mediated nature of our most intimate perceptions of sound and self. Below, I sketch just a few of the places I think aural media scholarship could go in conversation with tinnitus and hyperacusis.
The sound of media aftermath
Hearing experts do not consider subjective tinnitus to be a disease, but rather a condition in which individuals experience the normal, random neuronal firing of their auditory system as sound. Although it may be tied to various diseases and disorders, tinnitus itself is benign and does not inherently signal progressive hearing loss nor any other malignant condition.
Nevertheless, research shows a frequent association between tinnitus and reduced auditory input, comparable to a sound engineer turning up the volume on a weak signal and thus amplifying the mixing board’s inherent noise. This “automatic gain control” theory neatly explains a classic 1953 study, in which 94 percent of “normal hearing” people experienced tinnitus in the dead silence of an anechoic chamber. Unfortunately, it also helps confirm the fear that the ringing heard after a night of loud music is due to hearing loss, known clinically as “temporary threshold shift.”
As Joel’s case suggests, when repeated, such threshold shifts lead to permanent damage. Audiologists increasingly see media-induced hearing loss and tinnitus as an epidemic, with ubiquitous earbuds often positioned as the main culprits. I have heard clinicians express dismay at encountering more young people with “old ears” in their offices, and youth education programs are beginning to proliferate. These apparent relations between aural pleasure and self-harm are an intriguing and socially significant area for sound and media scholarship, but they should also be considered within the context of moral panics that have historically accompanied the emergence of new media.
Objectifying phantom sound
For both clinicians and sufferers, one of the most frustrating and confounding aspects of tinnitus is how hard it is to objectify, either as a subject of research and treatment or as a condition worthy of empathy and activism. For both clinicians and sufferers, media are the primary tools for converting tinnitus into a manageable object.
Although media scholars haven’t yet studied it as such, the audiologist’s clinic is a center of media production and consumer electronics retail. Having audio production experience, I felt a sense of recognition on seeing the mixer-like audiometer in the control room of Joel’s audiologist, Jill Meltzer, separated by a pane of glass from the soundproofed booth where her patients sit. It was a studio where Meltzer recorded hearing rather than sound, as she attempted the tricky work of matching the pitch, volume, and sensitivity levels of tinnitus and hyperacusis. Since medication and surgery are not effective treatment options, the remedies for sale are media prosthetics and palliatives such as wearable sound generators, “fractal tone” hearing aids, Neuromonics, and sound machines that help distract, calm, and habituate patients to the ringing. Meltzer and other clinicians consistently told me that they have only two tinnitus tools at their disposal—counseling and sound.
The subjectivity of tinnitus is most frustrating for sufferers, however, who often encounter impatience and misunderstanding from family, friends, bosses, and even their doctors. Again, media serve to externalize and objectify the sound. Joel did this through music: “A Sharp,” Styzens’ first post-tinnitus composition, represents tinnitus with chordal dissonance and hyperacusis with a powerful change of dynamics on a guitar. He eventually recorded an entire album that explored his condition and raised awareness.
Other individuals, in an attempt to communicate the aural experience that drives their sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, or lack of concentration, create YouTube videos designed to recreate the subjective experience of tinnitus.
The American Tinnitus Association, an advocacy group, has used broadcast and social media to raise awareness and research funding, as we see in this PSA from 1985.
However, such dramatic uses of media may be in some ways too powerful. In fact, “raising awareness of tinnitus” might be as bad as it literally sounds.
In the process of externalizing their experience for others to hear, people with tinnitus can make their own perception of the sound grow stronger. They may also generate anxiety in others, encouraging them to notice and problematize their own, previously benign tinnitus.
Neuroscientist Pawel Jastreboff’s groundbreaking and influential neurophysiological model of tinnitus postulates that tinnitus becomes bothersome only when the auditory cortex forms networks with other areas in the brain, resulting in a vicious circle of increasing perception and fear. The implication of this model, now substantiated by clinical research, is that the way people think about tinnitus is a much greater predictor of suffering than the perceived volume of the sound. As Jastreboff told me in an interview, “Incorrect information can induce bothersome tinnitus.” Information, of course, circulates through media. It may be productive, then, to think of tinnitus suffering as a communicable dis-ease, one strengthened in circulation through networks of neurons, discourse, and media.
I think there is both a need and an opportunity in tinnitus for an applied sound studies, one that intervenes in this mediated public discourse, works against moral panic and hyperawareness, and suggests the quieting possibilities that open up when we grasp the constructed nature of our aurality. Listening to tinnitus as a networked coproduction highlights the ways in which our most subjective aural perceptions are also social, cultural, and mediated—perhaps the fundamental insight of sound studies. My hope is that by listening to tinnitus we can speak to it as well.
*Featured Image Credit: A representation of Tinnitus by Flickr User Jason Rogers, called “Day 642/365–Myself is against me”
Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012. Read last week’s post by Liana Silva here–JSA
Lately, I’ve been halted by a particular photograph of my mother. Like Roland Barthes’ wonderland photo of his mother in Camera Lucida,
this picture “corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical” (8).
It began when my father reorganized his photographs. Since retirement, he’s taken on archival projects with renewed fervor. He began with 1974 (the year I was born), made it all the way to 1984 and from there slipped back. My mother, a freckled farm girl in South Dakota, standing in front of a box house and snow, lots of snow. The year, 1957 or so. My father in a high chair in Sepulveda, California. Perhaps 1948. By then my grandparents knew he was deaf.
And every couple of weeks or so my dad calls me. I finished another year, come see the pictures, he tells me via the Iphone, his slow, thoughtful typing shaped by many years of TTY-use (TTYs, or “Text Telephones,” are increasingly receding from every day use, replaced by chatting and text messaging). I imagine him at home in my old room, surrounded by generations of Waldners, Cardinales, Jensons and Ewings. Eagerly, he fills an old stereoscope viewer with 3d slides. His favorite is of my brother and me at the Buschart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. My brother is six and I am eight; our young faces are carefully tilted towards the pale cabbage roses. My father fits more years into fewer albums, filing the stray photos in new Costco cardboard photo boxes. And yet, as he reduces by putting old pictures into new boxes, he continually finds older pictures, older boxes.
The last time he called me, he was in 1984. These pictures depress my dad; he won’t spend much time here. In the photos I’m always on the phone or covering my face. Perhaps he remembers, as I do, the times he would attempt to enter my teenage world of sound. He’d follow the knotted coil of the cord, pick up the phone and say “huh-lllll-ooo,” exaggerating his lips in a comical lip-synch, emitting a low, guttural voice while I danced for the phone. We’d both laugh as if we secretly agreed: hearing language is silly, ugly; my father rarely uses his voice.
But within 1984 was a stack of black and white 5×6 matte photographs bound by a rubber band. They were a series of still television shots of my mother. We lived in Berkeley then, and my mother would drive to San Francisco to record the DeafNews; I remember being sleepy, confused, and excited when my mother’s face appeared on the TV. These photographs frame my mother the way I saw her: her face elongated by the distorting concave screen surrounded by blackness; in the picture she seems still to be floating in TV space. I wonder, who stood in front of the television, through several barriers and captured these stills of language?
In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf where my parents were chaperones. It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus. It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo. “Careless Whispers” played as it did at all high school dances and embraced couples locked bodies in a slow sway on the dance floor. The music, the discomfort of boys in pressed shirts and Drakkar Noir, it was no different than the stiff dances at Ramona High school down the street. But it was Deaf more than any silence could be. When my friends found out my parents were deaf they nearly almost always gasped: “I bet your house must be so quiet!”; they nearly always got it wrong. Here, in this cafeteria-turned “sea of love,” Deafness announced itself. Deafness was not mute.
sound does not just enter the gateway of hearing; it can also be perceived through the sense of force” (77).
The song changed to M.C. Hammer, and the dancers on the floor continued slowly rocking. A nervous looking redhead held his palm out with one hand and with the other shaped his hands to form legs; he put the two signs together and asked me to dance.
I was flattered, and acutely aware that I was the foreigner there. As I took his hand, I was filled with adolescent shame forever demanding: “be quiet! People can hear.”
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,/sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres/tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,/tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño–Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets Cien Sonetos de Amor
I am six, and eight, and thirteen. The door is open, so I crawl into my parents’ bed, and the pull of the sheets awakens my mother. She grasps my hand. I whisper in sign language so my father won’t be disturbed by the light. Then, I take her hand and listen, tracing the terrain of her fingers, following the curves to read her words. I fall asleep talking to my mother, her hand in mine, my father’s snoring vibrating the bed.
I am twenty-nine and I am watching her hands, her signing, and seeing my own. Her name, signed with a sweep from a handshape “L” to a curved “C” down the shoulder to the wrist (my name, the same “C”)— “now I know your mother, you sign just like her.” And my punctum—sting, speck, prick—the kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward ‘the rest’ of nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. Barthes again.
Her hands—her hands and my hands, let me see your hands she tells me. She too sees herself on my body; we are both always looking at the blurrr of her hands.
And looking, I return always to a short story by Julio Cortázar, “Axototl” from Blow-Up and Other Stories about a boy who spends hours at the aquarium watching the axolotls; he is transfixed, haunted, obsessed, and keeps returning to watch these fish, no not fish. The boy consults a dictionary and discovers that they are the larval stage of a kind of Mexican salamander. I find the boy and his axolotls among my books, and discover highlighted in purple:
I was, I am, struck by this passage. These atavistic creatures capture, compress space and being. Identity breaks down—I, we, they are no longer discrete. What side are you on? Mother, Father Deaf.
When I was eleven our family bought a deluxe conversion Dodge Caravan complete with metallic bronze customized paint job, rust colored velour captain’s chairs, and a boomerang-shaped television antenna. I went with my parents to the car dealer on a sticky August afternoon. “We want a minivan,” my mother signed to me, I voiced to the short man with greasy black hair and uncomfortably freckled arms. He immediately took us past rows of suburb-like cutouts of vans and led us to the Las Vegas model of minivans—all the deluxe features and without a deluxe price. A special deal. I signed this eagerly—I wanted my parents to understand as I did—we were lucky to see this car. It’s a familiar scene: father adjusting the seats and falling in love with cruise control; mother insisting it was more than they budgeted; the dealer crawling in the back and hollering out through the nifty sliding third door all of the fantastic features.
Inside the car. Tell them the back seat can be removed for more room. Tell them there’s an acoustical equalizer for the stereo. Tell them there’s air conditioning. Tell them there’s a threeyearthirtythousandmilewarranty. Tell them we do financing right here in the lot. Tell them.
Outside the car. Is this the best price? Does he have anything less expensive? Does it come with a warranty? Do you have special discounts? Are you telling us everything?
“Yes, they like all the extras.” No—best price.
We left the dealer and got back into our happy orange VW van. My bare legs stuck to the vinyl seats and I cried. My mother was upset: “What’s wrong? Did you want that car?”.
The salesman knew my parents didn’t care about the equalizer or the TV monitor in the back seat; but he didn’t know they understood. “How nice of you to help your mother go to the store and do the groceries” while my mother writes a check, looking at the cash register screen for the correct amount. I am the mute one. “What did the lady say?” my mother asks; “nothing,” is my silent reply. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Yes, my mother has a college degree. Table 7 shows that the proportion of persons 18 years of age and over with under 12 years of education increases monotonically as the level of their hearing ability decreases. A bachelor of library sciences. No, she does not work in a library. They were afraid of what would happen if she answered the phone. They were afraid of hearing a deaf woman speak. We moved several times when the rent for one reason or another had to go up; even being six you become familiar with friendly discomfort. Interpreting for my mother when she caught my landlord in a contradictory lie—the distrust on both sides boomeranged off my nine-year old body.
In that parking lot, the traffic of misunderstanding and mistrust, all I wanted to do was to hide my lips, shield my transparent body so that neither side would see they were being betrayed.
The stage is dark, but the theatre is vibrating. “Red hots . . .” lingers in the air. My dad taps me on the shoulder. What does the music sound like?
My father is sitting to my left, my husband to my right. It is between scenes at the DEAFWEST performance of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m thrilled to watch the interpreters peering from the balcony above; their voices float above the Deaf actors who take center stage. Sign language takes center stage. The interpreters are for the hearing. The dividing line of the stage is several feet ahead of us. Blanche Dubois begins signing to Stella on the stage. But unlike the other Deaf actors, Blanche speaks with her own voice; the interpreters above are silent. Her signs are stiff, they struggle to keep up with her vocal cadence. I nod as I watch, transfixed: everything has been reversed.
I quickly sign to my father: She is speaking. She’s hearing! Then I lean over and whisper to my husband: her signing. It’s not Deaf. She’s hearing.
I am signing Deaf. I am whispering Hearing.
Cara Cardinale gives sound to her narrative with her mother’s voice–“sounding out” against audist notions of sound that keep Deaf voices silent and perpetuate the idea that deafness is interchangeable with muteness. She would like to thank her mother for sharing her beautiful voice, which to a CODA is a distinctive and comforting sound but often carries a stigma outside the home. Cara uses her own signing body here, not as interpreter, but as primary narration of this intimate photograph.
From his jacket pocket, my father pulls out his hearing aid still marked with red dormitory tape from his years at the residential state school for the Deaf; the opaque embossed letters have slowly curled back on themselves. He adjusts the petrified, squealing earmold then smiles at me.
Her hands are strapped to the hospital bed. More violent than the search for willing veins to take the sedatives, is the silencing. I cover my mouth to keep from gagging. In the darkness, I watch the television screen as it shows the tour of my mother’s internal body: my face looking back at me against the glass.
The doctor freezes the image and points out the polyps clinging to the intestinal walls. But I see gestation, birth—I am looking from the inside out:
If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides. When we experience this passage . . . intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (218).
It was my body in her body and I found myself looking for the lost baby from years ago; perhaps it was there, inside of her body, my body.
The intimacy, the motion still in the blurrr of the photograph. I am fascinated with a delightful dread, horror. Her name in captions, my name. Her body, my body. That picture says everything about my body. Everything about sitting between my father and my husband: lines drawn between us in the newly reupholstered seats, steel blue like everything new, between the actors and the audience, close enough to see the eyeliner drawn in for emphasis, between the Deaf actors on the stage and the hearing interpreters peering over them on the balcony.
I am transfixed. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Florescent lights saturate the room. I lean forward; take a breath; faint.
center of vision
Sometime within the last six months, my father’s left eye has had an aneurysm. This led to a detached retina and a burst blood vessel. The blood has been slowly moving towards the center of vision. During the day, my father sees shadows. And my mother has been hearing things. Last week she was startled by a high pitched noise; moments later the light in the kitchen flashed indicating that the phone was ringing. Lines are bleeding. The darkness is terrifying for my father in the same way that sound has become disorienting for my mother. And lately I’ve been on the verge of vertigo. It seems as if it were the moving forwards and looking backwards at the same time that’s been disorienting me.
I go with my father to see a retinal specialist. Once in the examining room, I am in the dark again. I am signing in the dark, but my father cannot hold my hand. He is across the room, peering at me with one eye, seeing my signs with the shadow of the pinlight. It must be dark, they explain, his eye needs time to dilate, to open so we can see inside. He will be injected with a kind of serum so that the shadow can be seen.
While we wait for the dizzy eye to dilate, I describe my vertigo to my father. He notes with interest and nods, yes, mother took me to doctors in Washington D.C. He looks at me. Your age. Even the emergency room. Nothing wrong. Gone—he signs with a shrug. Maybe gone—he points at me—soon.
The doctor returns and looks into my father’s eye. The serum has worked, and the image is transparent.
I see his eye, enlarged, disembodied, projected on the screen behind him. It is beautiful and dark, a moonscape clouded over by an eclipse. Everything is transparent, and I think of the axolotls.
C.L. Cardinale has a PhD in English Literature from University of California, Riverside. Currently she is editing her manuscript on what she calls “look-listening”—deafened gestures—in twentieth century narratives. She also publicly reads Proust, edits for Lettered Press, and sings with her one and six year old in California’s east bay.