“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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Hearing Eugenics—Vibrant Lives
Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.
To start the series, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights. Last week, Jennifer Garcon shows how the long marriage between Haitian politics and Haitian radio has endured, despite multiple and conflicting alliances, high drama, and attacks from all sides. The powerful and the powerless have even in their enmity presumed that if they could harness radio’s power they would ascend to political power. Her story recounts one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life.
The sweeping stories of Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive (now at Duke University), its more than 5300 recordings fully digitized and described in English, French and Haitian Creole) come together in this all too brief account. Laura Wagner, who listened to each recording and wrote the descriptors, writes of the work itself, the emotional, financial and intellectual challenges involved, and the reason this archive is essential to anyone interested in Haiti, or radio, or racial justice.
Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman
Click here for the full series!
For four years, I spent forty hours a week in a cubicle in a converted tobacco warehouse with noise-cancelling headphones over my ears, listening to and describing the entire audio archive of Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haïti-Inter. Though my title was “project archivist,” I am not an archivist by training. But I am compelled to compile, assemble, and preserve stories from lost people and lost worlds. Sound is more intimate than printed words or video. With sound, voices are inside your head, as close as another person can be. As I processed the Radio Haiti collection, I would forget that many of the voices I heard every day belonged to people I never knew in life. Sometimes in my dreams I would see the station’s director, Jean Dominique, alive and laughing.
Radio Haïti-Inter was inaugurated in the early 1970s. Dominique, an agronomist by training, quickly became the most recognized journalist in Haiti. His professional partner and wife, Michèle Montas, Radio Haiti’s news editor, was a Columbia Journalism School graduate who trained several generations of Haitian journalists. Dominique was part Ida B. Wells, part Edward R. Murrow, part Sy Hersh, part Studs Terkel, part Hunter S. Thompson. He was an investigative journalist who uncovered human rights abuses, government corruption, and corporate malfeasance. He was an activist who possessed the charisma of a theater star, the crackling wit of a satirist, and the public intellectual’s gift for insight and analysis. After Dominique was assassinated on April 3, 2000, more than fifteen thousand mourners attended his funeral.
In 2013, Montas donated the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter — more than 1600 open-reel tapes, more than 2000 audio cassettes, and approximately 100 linear feet of paper records — to Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, under the condition that it be digitized and made available to the widest possible public in Haiti. Thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Council on Library and Information Resources, today the Radio Haiti Archive is a free, publicly accessible, trilingual digital collection. Its over 5300 audio recordings represent the most comprehensive archive of late 20th-century Haitian history. Radio Haiti still speaks, despite government repression, multiple exiles, the assassination of Dominique, the attempted assassination of Montas in December 2002, the closure of the station in 2003, and the 2010 earthquake. That the archive exists is a miracle.
According to its mission statement, the Rubenstein Library “builds distinctive collections of original materials and preserves them for use on campus and around the world. In support of Duke University’s mission of ‘knowledge in service to society,’ we collect a diversity of voices in a wide range of formats… We invite students, scholars, and the general public to explore the world through our unique collections.” the library seeks to preserve the voices of marginalized people, and make various kinds of materials (including sonic media) available to audiences beyond Duke, beyond the United States, and beyond academia.
In Radio Haiti’s broadcasts, rural farmers, activists from poor urban neighborhoods, sex workers, marketwomen, Vodou patriarchs, and refugees narrate vivid stories of their lives and worlds. The aurality of radio allowed speakers and listeners who were not traditionally literate to participate in the political life of Haiti. Likewise, the aurality of the Radio Haiti collection makes it a trove of information that appears nowhere else. It is invaluable for academic researchers and ordinary audiences alike. It is a people’s history of Haiti, told through voices that are silenced in the written record.
Most libraries in poor countries like Haiti lack the resources to restore, digitize, and process audiovisual materials, but wealthy institutions in wealthy countries tend to neglect sonic archives. Unlike written records, audio is difficult to skim, and therefore harder for researchers to use. The rights considerations are often fraught. Audiovisual archives are expensive and difficult to preserve, digitize, and process; as a result, many projects, including Radio Haiti, depend on highly competitive external grants. While these days many universities prize Black archival collections (sometimes to the point of commodification, as Steven G. Fullwood argues), it’s another matter when those collections are audio, especially non-English language audio. In Radio Haiti’s case, the audio is in Haitian Creole and French. All of these factors made Radio Haiti a complex project. But I believe the complexity of a project like Radio Haiti could be mitigated if institutions were to truly make custodianship of marginalized collections a priority. In other words, some of the complexity isn’t inherent to the collection, but rather to the system that was not built to accommodate it.
As I processed Radio Haiti, I ached for the cane-cutters that the Duvalier dictatorship effectively sold to the Dominican Republic, former political prisoners describing horrific torture, and migrants risking their life at sea. But it was not my trauma. In some ways, this project was challenging because I am not Haitian, but it was also easier because the anguish was not my own. I understood the archive’s importance, but I did not feel the pain in my bones.
So, yes, the material in the archive could be heavy, but the project was difficult mainly because the current practices of US academic libraries are incompatible with a project like Radio Haiti. For the last year and a half of the project, there was no remaining grant money or internal funding for an intern fluent in Haitian Creole or French to earn a living wage. When I proposed seeking additional funding to support an intern to help describe the audio, I was told it would be unfair to other staff who are likewise underpaid. In order to finish before my own grant-funded salary ran out, I listened to and created multilingual narrative description for an average of ten recordings a day. Every day was a race against time. I was reprimanded for “overdescribing” the audio, and told, “Don’t do the researcher’s job for them.” Library leadership and I did not share the same objectives. Despite their stated commitment to digitize Radio Haiti and make it available to the Haitian public, they still considered traditional academic researchers the target audience, while I was thinking of ordinary people in Haiti, trying to access the audio on a secondhand smartphone with a limited data plan.
Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor ask, “what happens when we scratch beneath the surface of the veneer of detached professionalism and start to think of recordkeepers and archivists less as sentinels of accountability… and more as caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users, and communities through a web of mutual responsibility?” They call for empathy between the archivist and the creators, subjects, users, and audience of the archive. I believed that “slow processing” — providing detailed, trilingual description of each Radio Haiti recording — was a necessary act of empathy, and the only way to honor the voices in the archive and make the collection truly available to Haitian audiences. If I provided only “minimal description,” Radio Haiti’s audio would remain lost.
The work was exhausting. I began to have panic attacks. One administrator encouraged me to develop “strategies for self-care.” “Self-care,” which places the responsibility onto the individual worker, is not a solution to burnout. What I needed were more resources.
Like everyone else in the neoliberal US university, archivists are bound by concrete considerations of political economy. They are being asked to do more with less: they must eliminate backlogs and process more collections more quickly, without improvements in salary, staffing, or workspace. Library work remains a feminized profession, one that downplays and erases the intellectual labor of those workers who “merely” process collections. The archivist is the invisible technician, while researchers discover. And so my intent is not to impugn any individual. Rather, I point to the structural factors and cultural attitudes — including institutional white supremacy — that make traditional archives inhospitable to collections like Radio Haiti.
Former archivist Jarrett Drake contends that “the purpose of the archival profession is to curate the past, not confront it; to entrench inequality, not eradicate it; to erase black lives, not ennoble them.” As a white American woman, my personal experiences were obviously not comparable to those of archivists and scholars of color who endure racism regularly, but my time as the Radio Haiti project archivist revealed to me how Black archival collections are subjected to structural racism. The Radio Haiti collection was created by and for Black people. It centers the voices, perspectives, and experiences of Black people. It is a sonic archive, in a field that prioritizes traditional paper collections. It is largely in Haitian Creole, a disparaged language spoken mostly by Black people. It is from a country that has been colonized, exploited, invaded, occupied, vilified, pitied, embargoed, evangelized, and intervened upon for centuries. And finally, its primary audience is not anglophone academics, but Haitian people.
Many library workers at predominantly white institutions make extraordinary efforts to combat systemic white supremacy, but low-level staff cannot create change when the larger institution remains hidebound. Bringing Radio Haiti back to Haiti required intellectual work, passion, and love. To represent diverse voices and make a collection like Radio Haiti truly accessible to a worldwide public, traditional archival institutions must undergo a radical transformation. They must confront assumptions about what makes a collection “difficult to process,” commit resources to collections that foreground the voices of marginalized people, and support the work of staff who give those collections the care they deserve.
Editor’s Note: Minor changes have been made since publication for clarity and to add links to sources. Nothing substantive has been changed. 12:48 PM EST, 5/3/2021
Featured Image: Picture of a painting of Radio Haiti tied to a cross with the inscription (in translation): “The proverb goes: each firefly lights the way for itself [every man for himself]. We say: unity makes strength. Let’s help Radio Haiti-Inter lay its cross down so that it is not crucified.” Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
From 2015 to 2019, Laura Wagner was the project archivist for the Radio Haiti Archive at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. She holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from UNC Chapel Hill, where her research focused on displacement, humanitarian aid, and everyday life in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Her writings on the earthquake and the Radio Haiti project have appeared in Slate, Salon, sx archipelagos, PRI’s The World, and other venues. She is also the author of Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, a young adult novel about the earthquake and its aftermath, which was published by Abrams/Amulet in 2015. She is currently working on a book about Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive.
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Black Excellence on the Airwaves: Nora Holt and the American Negro Artist Program–Chelsea M. Daniel and Samantha Ege