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Hearing Change in the Chocolate City:  Soundwalking as Black Feminist Method

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. Today, Allie Martin kicks off the series with a powerful reframing of the soundwalk as a black feminist methodology.  —JS


In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories.  Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere.  It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.”  My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically.  Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment.  I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.

In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks.  Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place.  Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness.  One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990).  I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience.  Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge.  What did I hear?  Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound.

I began soundwalking in Washington, DC as a part of my dissertation project, which explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in the city. Gentrification is often considered in visual terms, meaning that a neighborhood is considered gentrified because new coffeeshops, bike lanes, and dog parks make it “look” different from what was once there.  I recognize these new additions as important markers of gentrification, but what do they sound like?  And what do these sonic markers reveal about the sonorities of race?

Rowhouses in the Shaw neighborhood, image by author

I have taken up the sonic exploration of gentrification, drawing inspiration from Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line and Regina Bradley’s exploration of the criminalization of black sound.  As SO! writer and ethnic studies scholar Marlén Rios Hernandez has noted in her work on racial and spatial shifts in early punk in 1970s Los Angeles, it is crucial to work on “delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion.”  Having spent time researching the auralities of gentrification in DC, I understand it to be a process that silences poor and marginalized populations while amplifying the concerns of those privileged enough to have the ear of the DC Council and developers.  Gentrification displaces musicians and music genres, while increasing tensions around music and noise in “public” space.  More than these changes, though, gentrification changes the soundscape of the city.

My soundwalks focus on the Shaw neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of DC, part of the fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. Before the explosion of development, Shaw was a cultural hub of black DC, only blocks away from the U Street Corridor, formerly known as Black Broadway.  From Pearl Bailey to James Brown, prominent black entertainers frequented the neighborhood because they were unable to perform in or have accommodations in other areas of the city.  As the neighborhood shifts and transforms, the soundscapes grow louder with new nightclubs and quieter due to increased reporting of noise violations.  The neighborhood diversifies in terms of languages, increases in siren whoops, and new sounds appear, such as the beep of a dockless scooter.  Shaw has seen a concomitant increase in property values, community gardens, and bars; a Whole Foods is set to open in the neighborhood by 2020.

[The recording here is of a soundscape at 7th street and Florida Avenue NW, a busy intersection at the north edge of Shaw.  Recorded on a mid-September afternoon, you can hear go-go music (DC’s indigenous subgenre of funk), engines idling, and the whoop of a siren.  In the past two months, this intersection has become a battleground for cultural erasure, as artists, activists, and councilmembers attempt to legitimize the go-go music that has been playing in the area since 1995.]

During the day, Shaw oscillates between a quiet neighborhood and a busy city space.  Traffic, horns, and sirens are frequent, yet so are the sounds of children at recess and old men chatting outside on their stoops or outside of corner stores.

Conducting soundwalks as a black woman in this gentrifying neighborhood is a curious space to tarry in.  I am in some ways an outsider as a non-resident, mindful of who and what I record at any given moment because part of what makes gentrification such a tense and terrifying process is the lack of control that residents (particularly renters) have regarding their futures, and often their presence too.  I am also an insider, a black woman in this space where being a black woman is not (yet) anything out of the ordinary.  In fact, as the months went on, more of my recordings feature me speaking to people on the street, some I had come to know and some still strangers to me.

One of my favorite interactions on a soundwalk came early on, in late February of 2018.  I was running late for an interview, listening intently to what was going around me, when I walked past a black man, seemingly in his 30s, on a narrow sidewalk.  The exchange went something like this:

Man: Whoa, whoa, why you running up on people?

Me: My bad, my bad!

Man: It’s okay.  Hey sis, you know how to make grits?

Me: [laughing], Nah, I don’t know how to make grits.

Man: What about pancakes?

Me: Yeah, I can make some pancakes.

Man: Ayyyee, I’m tryna get some breakfast!!

Me: I don’t know about all that!

The exchange, not quite a catcall but not quite comfortable either, consistently faded in volume, because during the entire time we spoke, I continued to walk away from him.  I was in a position of wanting to speak, because I know the politics of being an outsider in a gentrifying neighborhood and not greeting folks as you walk by.  However, I also know the dangers of being a black woman walking alone, and so I negotiated a lighthearted exchange while making my way to my destination.  My soundwalks, then, act as a sonic record of gentrifying space as well as my attempts to keep myself safe.

Shaw from a rooftop perspective, Image by author

These moments also inform the contours of my dissertation project on hearing gentrification in DC.  The larger project involves passive acoustic recording in the same neighborhood, a methodology that entails creating a large amount of short soundscape recordings over a long period of time.  Understanding both my soundwalks and passive acoustic recording as black feminist method allows for the consideration of multiple sonic perspectives of the neighborhood, rather than one record.  When once describing passive acoustic recording to a colleague at a digital humanities workshop, they celebrated the idea that I would be able to “objectively” hear what was occurring in the neighborhood, instead of relying only on pieced together accounts from community members.

However, just as black feminist thought amplifies my “tainted” knowledge, it also mutes the authoritative “objective” knowledge of a rooftop recorder.  The sounds of the stationary recorder placed on a rooftop at 7th and Florida are as partial and positioned as the recordings of my footsteps as I move around the neighborhood.  As I continue to walk, be it through the unfamiliarity of Mississippi or my hometown DC, I do so with the reassurance that what I hear is enough.

Featured Image: Shaw From Above, by author.

Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.  Her dissertation project explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in Washington, DC, using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and soundscape recordings.  Originally from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, she received her BAs in music performance and audio production from American University.  

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SO! Amplifies: Listening to the City Handbook

Sounding Out! Podcast #2: Springtime in KC: Soundwalking Kansas City—Liana Silva

Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table–Kimberly Williams

 

SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening

Pedagogy at the convergence of sound studies and rhetoric/composition seems to exist in a quantum state—both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  This realization simultaneously enlightens and frustrates. The first page of Google results for “sound studies” and “writing instruction” turns up tons of pedagogy; almost all of it is aimed at instructors, pedagogues, and theorists, or contextualized in the form of specific syllabi. The same is true for similar searches—such as “sound studies” + “rhetoric and composition”—but one thing that remains constant is that Steph Ceraso, and her new book Sounding Composition (University of Pittsburgh Press: 2018) are always the first responses. This is because Ceraso’s book is largely the first to look directly into the deep territorial expanses of both sound studies and rhet/comp, which in themselves are more of a set of lenses for ever-expanding knowledges than deeply codified practices, and she dares to bring them together, rather than just talking about it. This alone is an act of academic bravery, and it works well.

Ceraso established her name early in the academic discourse surrounding digital and multimodal literacy and composition, and her work has been nothing short of groundbreaking. Because of her scholarly endeavors and her absolute passion for the subject, it is no surprise that some of us have waited for her first book with anticipation. Sounding Composition is a multivalent, ambitious work informs the discipline on many fronts. It is an act of ongoing scholarship that summarizes the state of the fields of digital composition and sonic rhetorics, as well as a pedagogical guide for teachers and students alike.

Through rigorous scholarship and carefully considered writing, Ceraso manages to take many of the often-nervewracking buzzwords in the fields of digital composition and sonic rhetorics and breathe poetic life into them. Ceraso engages in the scholarship of her field by demystifying the its jargon, making accessible to a wide variety of audiences the scholar-specific language and concepts she sets forth and expands from previous scholarship (though it does occasionally feel trapped in the traditional alphabetic prison of academic communication).. Her passion as an educator and scholar infuses her work, and Ceraso’s ontology re-centers all experience–and thus the rhetoric and praxis of communicating that experience–back into the whole body. Furthermore, Ceraso’s writing makes the artificial distinctions between theory and practice dissolve into a mode of thought that is simultaneously conscious and affective, a difficult feat given her genre and medium of publication. Academic writing, especially in the form of a university press book, demands a sense of linearity and fixity that lacks the affordances of some digital formats in terms of envisioning a more organic flow between ideas. However, while the structure of her book broadly follows a standard academic structure, within that structure lies a carefully considered and deftly-organized substructure.

Sounding Composition begins with a theory-based introduction in which Ceraso lays the book’s framework in terms of theory and structure. Then proceeds the chapter on the affective relationship between sound and the whole body. The next chapter investigates the relation of sonic environments and the body, followed by a chapter on our affective relationship with consumer products, in particular the automobile, perhaps the most American of factory-engineered soundscapes. Nested in these chapters is a rhetorical structure that portrays a sense of movement, but rather than moving from the personal out into spatial and consumer rhetorics, Sounding Composition’s chapter structure moves from an illustrative example that clearly explains the point Ceraso makes, into the theories she espouses, into a “reverberation” or a pedagogical discussion of an assignment that helps students better grasp and respond to the concepts providing the basis for her theory. This practice affords Ceraso meditation on her own practices as well as her students’ responses to them, perfectly demonstrating the metacognitive reflection that so thoroughly informs rhet/comp theory and praxis.

Steph Ceraso and students share a “sonic meal.” Photo by Marlayna Demond, UMBC.

Chapter one, “Sounding Bodies, Sounding Experience: (Re)Educating the Senses,” decenters the ears as the sole site of bodily interaction with sound. Ceraso focuses on Dame Evelyn Glennie, a deaf percussionist, who Ceraso claims can “provide a valuable model for understanding listening as a multimodal event” (29) because these practices expand listening to faculties that many, especially the auditorially able, often ignore. Dame Glennie theorizes, and lives, sound from the tactile ways its vibrations work on the whole body. From the new, more comprehensive understanding of sound Dame Glennie’s deafness affords, we can then do the work of “unlearning” our ableist auditory and listening practices, allowing all a more thorough reckoning with the way sound enables us to understand our environments.

The ability to transmit, disrupt, and alter the vibrational aspects of sound are key to understanding how we interact with sound in the world, the focus of the second chapter in Sounding Composition. In “Sounding Space, Composing Experience: The Ecological Practice of Sound Composition,” Ceraso situates her discussion in the interior of the building where she actually composed the chapter. The Common Room in the Cathedral of Learning, on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus, is vast, ornate, and possessed of a sense of quiet which “seems odd for a bustling university space”(69).  As Ceraso discovered, the room itself was designed to be both vast and quiet, as the goal was to produce a space that both aesthetically and physically represented the solemnity of education.

Cathedral of Learning Ceiling and Columns, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Image by Flickr User Matthew Paulson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To ensure a taciturn sense of stillness, the building was constructed with acoustic tiles disguised as stones. These tiles serve to not only hearken back to solemn architecture but also to  absorb sound and lend a reverent air of stillness, despite the commotion. The deeply intertwined ways in which we interact with sound in our environment is crucial to further developing Ceraso’s affective sonic philosophy. This lens enables Ceraso to draw together the multisensory ways sound is part of an ecology of the material aspects of the environment with the affective ways we interact with these characteristics. Ceraso focuses on the practices of acoustic designers to illustrate that sound can be manipulated and revised, that sound itself is a composition, a key to the pedagogy she later develops.

Framing the discussion of sound as designable—a media manipulated for a desired impact and to a desired audience–serves well in introducing the fourth chapter, which examines products designed to enhance consumer experience.  “Sounding Cars, Selling Experience: Sound Design in Consumer Products,” moves on to discuss the in-car experience as a technologically designed site of multisensory listening. Ceraso chose the automobile as the subject of this chapter because of the expansive popularity of the automobile, but also because the ecology of sound inside the car is the product of intensive engineering that is then open to further manipulation by the consumer. Whereas environmental sonic ecologies can be designed for a desired effect, car audio is subject to a range of intentional manipulations on the listener. Investigating and theorizing the consumer realm not only opens the possibilities for further theorization, but also enhances the possibility that we might be more informed in our consumer interactions. Understanding the material aspects of multimodal sound also further informs and shapes disciplinary knowledge at the academic level, framing the rhetorical aspect of sonic design as product design so that it focuses on, and caters to, particular audiences for desired effects.

Heading Up the Mountain, Image by Flickr User Macfarland Maclean,(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sounding Composition is a useful and important book because it describes a new rhetoric and because of how it frames all sound as part of an affective ontology.  Ceraso is not the first to envision this ontology, but she is the first to provide carefully considered composition pedagogy that addresses what this ontology looks like in the classroom, which are expressed in the sections in Sounding Composition marked as “Reverberations.”   To underscore the body as the site of lived experience following chapter two, Ceraso’s “reverberation” ask students to think of an experience in which sound had a noticeable effect on their bodies and to design a multimodal composition that translates this experience to an audience of varying abledness. Along with the assignment, students must write an artist statement describing the project, reflecting on the composition process, and explaining each composer’s choices.

To encourage students to think of sound and space and the affective relationship between the two following chapter three, Ceraso developed a digital soundmap on soundcities.com and had students upload sounds to it, while also producing an artist statement similar to the assignment in the preceding chapter. Finally, in considering the consumer-ready object in composition after the automobile chapter, students worked in groups to play with and analyze a sound object, and to report back on the object’s influence on them physically and emotionally. After they performed this analysis, students are then tasked with thinking of a particular audience and creating a new sonic object or making an existing sonic object better, and to prototype the product and present it to the class. Ceraso follows each of these assignment descriptions with careful metacognitive reflection and revision.

Steph Ceraso interviewed by Eric Detweiler in April 2016, host of Rhetoricity podcast. They talked sound, pedagogy, accessibility, food, senses, design, space, earbuds, and more. You can also read a transcript of this episode.

While Sounding Composition contributes to scholarship on many levels, it’s praxis feels the most compelling to me. Ceraso’s love for the theory and pedagogy is clear–and contagious—but when she describes the growth and evolution of her assignments in practice, we are able to see the care that she has for students and their individual growth via sound rhetoric. To Ceraso, the sonic realm is not easily separated from any of the other sensory realms, and it is an overlooked though vitally important part of the way we experience, navigate, and make sense of the world. Ceraso’s aim to decenter the primacy of alphabetic text in creating, presenting, and formulating knowledge might initially appear somewhat contradictory, but the old guard will not die without a fight. It could be argued that this work and the knowledge it uncovers might be better represented outside of an academic text, but that might actually be the point. Multimodal composition is not the rule of the day and though the digital is our current realm, text is still the lingua franca. Though it may seem like it will never arrive, Ceraso is preparing us for the many different attunements the future will require.

Featured Image: Dame Evelyn Glennie Performing in London in 2011, image by Flickr User PowderPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Airek Beauchampis an Assistant Professor of English at Arkansas State University and Editor-at Large for Sounding Out! His research interests include sound and the AIDS crisis, as well as swift and brutal punishment for any of the ghouls responsible for the escalation of the crisis in favor of political or financial profit. He fell in love in Arkansas, which he feels lends undue credence to a certain Rhianna song. 

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Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis– Airek Beauchamp

Botanical Rhythms: A Field Guide to Plant Music -Carlo Patrão

Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece–Maile Colbert

(T)racing Mother Listening: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke SinitiereKristin MoriahAaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post (the second of an interlocking trilogy of essays) by Julie Beth Napolin continues to echolocate Du Bois and Freud as lived contemporaries, exploring entangled notions of melancholic listening across the Veil.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


In “Intimacy and Affliction,” Peter Coviello writes of W.E.B. Du Bois’ abiding, proto-psychoanalytic preoccupation with race’s “entanglements with virtually every aspect of intimate life” (4). Such entanglement demands, he suggests, a method both historical and psychoanalytic. Coviello recalls, for example, the work of Hortense Spillers who writes that Du Bois finds in the color line “radically different historical reasons” for such key psychoanalytic themes as the “look” than those to be discovered in the pages of Lacan (726).

While there’s much to say on this topic, I want to focus in particular on the contribution of Du Bois to a psychoanalytic theory of listening, showing how that contribution demands a renewed return of psychoanalysis, sexuality, and race to sound studies. Beginning to touch upon these questions, literary critic Joseph Flatley describes the intersection of politics and melancholia in Du Bois to argue for what he calls “affective mapping” in listening.  For Du Bois, songs disclose the historicity of his feelings, bound to other people who feel and have felt like he does before (146), creating a transpersonal map.  This disclosure, Flatley writes, “always beckons towards a potentially political effect,” an effect that is often “nascent and unrealized” (106). Such nascence, or what Sara Marcus calls “untimely feedback,” begins to explain why we listen to old songs in the present: old feelings are waiting for us to take them up in politically transformative ways. I will unfold this claim in this week’s post to conclude with an analysis of the politics of sound, gender, and sexuality in Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, Moonlight.

Du Bois’ mode of presentation of word, sound, and melody in The Souls of Black Folk has been theorized by Alexander Weheilye as being akin to DJ samples cutting and mixing history and by Eric Sundquist as the elevation of a uniquely African American culture. In an earlier post in this series, “More Ancient Than Words,” Aaron Carter-Ényì argues that, in including melodies, Du Bois “entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon,” changing the concept of “the book.”

vinyl loves water, image by Flickr User Georgios Kaleadis

Beyond this work of canonization, which turns upon the existence of what Gilroy names the “Black Atlantic,” the materiality of Du Bois’ text discloses much concerning the suppressed contours of both race and the feminine in psychoanalytic theories of listening. It is difficult to separate these theories (particularly Chion’s, as Kaja Silverman makes plain in The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema) from Freud’s premise of a universal, male subject. In Freud’s theory of the Oedipal phase, the male child desires to supplant the father, and the mother—who is culturally forbidden from being seen in any way as being akin to or “like” the boy—emerges as the model of the proper object for heterosexual desire. But the pre-Oedipal phase is the opposite, defined by a closeness with the mother, often revealed in the language of cooing sounds they share. In other words, masculinity is culturally founded on the rejection of the feminine. Despite Silverman’s major contribution, this structure still remains essential for sound studies to deconstruct, particularly as it obscures other kinds of historical determinations that give shape to listening and the psychic life of sound in Du Bois’ text.

Psychoanalysis had been largely abandoned by the various “historical turns” in media studies. But it can only be recuperated in a Du Boisian fashion, that is, by the modes of listening made available by his text. Above all, the psychobiography indicated by Du Boisian listening is neither “universal” nor Oedipally determined—shaped by the destruction of the maternal— but rather historically and politically wrought by the specificity and ubiquity of the Middle Passage, or what Christina Sharpe names “being in the wake.”

“In the Wake,” image by Flickr User Sharonius Maximus

Unfolding the gendered afterlife of the Middle Passage has proved crucial for black feminism. Saidiya Hartman’s lyrical memoir of her experience as an African American woman traveling along the former routes of the Atlantic slave trade, for example, is defined by the feeling of what it is to “lose your mother.” This phrase contains many melancholic resonances, including the ideal of Africa (as a place of imaginary “return”), its phantasmatic, lost mother tongues, and fantasies of reunited kin in the midst of longing for “a new naming of things” (39). At the same time, Hartman suggests, the African American subject—whose name is derived from the slave owner—is “born with a blank space where a father’s name should be.” This blank space, its attendant forms of de-gendering, makes an imputed maternal inheritance of the black subject in the American cultural imaginary nothing less than a “monstrosity” (81).

In tension with these revelations, Sundquist’s magisterial To Wake the Nations argues that Du Bois’ textual presentation and formal strategies of pairing word and melody indicate racial amalgamation. Such a notion, however, is largely fraternal in its connotation. Indeed, the poetic epigraphs Du Bois calls upon are from white men, as many have critiqued. Flatley has shown how the “echo of haunting melody” is both historically and melancholically charged in Du Bois. We in sound studies can go further to describe how it is an acousmatic sound object. Such a claim involves intervening in the racially neutral terrain of the sound object to insist that it emanates in Du Bois’ memory from a black maternal position. This position makes the epigraphic space not so much an otherworldly union, but a violently charged, historical space that listens for the traces of miscegenation. It desires a place for the black maternal that could be articulated without also being repressed.

Where there is amalgamation, there is sexuality. Du Bois’ formal strategies, both conscious and unconscious, are radical because they indicate potential for a theory for a listening derived from or animated by a black feminine position.

***

To listen for the black maternal in Du Bois, then, involves returning to its most traumatic memory of song, one carried by his unnamed grandfather’s grandmother in the book’s final chapter, “The Sorrow Songs.” Whereas the opening epigraphs of Du Bois’s text provide us with bars of melody offered without comment, his final chapter is a sustained and nearly musicological analysis of song. The one amplifies silence, heightening the gap between reading, hearing, and understanding, the other produces cultural knowledge. At the core of “The Sorrow Songs” is the autobiographical memory of a song first heard in childhood. It is perhaps his earliest memory of song, though we can’t be sure.

Do ba – na co – ba, ge – ne me, ge – ne me!
Do ba – na co – ba, ge – ne me, ge – ne me!

Ben d’ nu – li, nu – li, nu – li, nu – li, ben d’ le.

He recalls this melody, as sung by a Bantu woman seized by Dutch traders: “The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.” For Du Bois, the song remains a transmission that necessarily involves both a partial memory and a mode of overhearing, as if hearing from a distance. Du Bois “overhears” not because, like Freud’s Wolf Man, he stands at the threshold of a secret and clandestine threshold. Du Bois overhears because to receive the song in the New World is already to be traumatized, on the outside of some possibility of full transmission. Carter-Ényì describes how rhythms and “melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural transmissions.” Melody in Du Bois provides “an alternate theory” of orality and literacy, one that privileges not a spoken oral tradition, but rather a survival of music, an aural tradition, as Carter-Ényì calls it, where melodies hold fast when language is “violently submerged.”

I want to fasten upon a different but related aural affect, not the one of immediate recognition (through which the song is passed down), but rather its attendant ambivalence and gaps. This gap—hearing without understanding— returns us to Souls as a displaced beginning of psychoanalytic modes of listening.

“Bubbles, Streams, and Waves.” Image by Flickr User Wolfgang Widener

According to Theodor Reik, Freud’s musically attuned student, Freud experienced an extreme distaste for music because an analytic trait bristled against something he couldn’t clearly theorize. When he did attend to the songs remembered by his patients, Freud suggested that only the words mattered. Bucking his master, Reik instead privileged the sound of a song, a tune and its affective valences, noting that “haunting melodies”—the same phrase used by Du Bois to describe sorrow songs as they echo on the other side of the Middle Passage—must be listened to with what Reik called a “third ear.”  Insisting that two ears already too many, Jacques Lacan resists Reik’s emphasis upon listening for meaning to suggest that an analyst instead “listen for sounds and phonemes, words, locutions, and…not forgetting pauses, scansions, cuts” (394). Even transcriptions of patient speech, Lacan says, must include these as the basis of “analytic intuition.”

The way the analyst listens beyond meaning resonates with Du Bois who was already listening to, repeating, and writing down the Bantu song without knowing what the words mean, nevertheless “knowing,” as it were, the meaning, ascribing to it great psychological importance. In the language of sound studies, “Do ba – na co – ba” is a sound object. Something of it is acousmatic, arriving as a sound separated from source. But the acousmatic is largely apolitical in its orthodox, Schaefferian conception. Schaeffer deems the sound object to be separable from its ecology, which would include not only ideology and the social, but race and history. In contrast, we learn from Du Bois that an acousmatic situation can rest upon historically determined partial memory. “Do ba – na co – ba” is sung in a so-called “mother tongue,” but this tongue is unknowable, unretrievable by Du Bois (the words he remembers as sounds have yet to be translated by historians).

We can’t forget that, like Du Bois, Freud died in exile (the one in Ghana, American citizenship revoked, the other in London, escaping persecution). When Reik describes the haunting melody, he begins with the experience of mourning. What he doesn’t say is that he himself, writing in English in America, was in émigré from war. The émigré is not the captive, and immigration is not forced migration of the Middle Passage. My point is that the position of racialized listening that is submerged in Freud is the avowed place of beginning in Du Bois, allowing him to address head on the historical and political conditions of listening, even though he can’t totally compass their sexual charge. He is listening for a new kind of political subject whose dictum is “lose your mother.”

Coast off Accra, Ghana, Image by Flickr User Fellfromatree

Importantly, “Do ba – na co – ba” is not part of the pre-Oedipal maternal effluence of sound and rhythm that Julia Kristeva famously calls the “semiotic chora.” Part of the content of the song is defined by being missing, seized, and surviving (rather than simply coming and going). Nor is it structured by the Oedipal desire to supplant the father and have the desire mother. Above all, Du Bois turns to this intensely personal memory of song to posit an individual coming into formation through a memory of song that is collective. These songs are both his and belong to others. Hearing the song involves affective mapping, or understanding oneself as being more than oneself (which we will find in part three of this essay) is the crux of sound and music in Moonlight.

Du Bois doesn’t begin the book with this memory of a Bantu woman’s crooning, but rather ends with it. By relocating the (personal) primal scene to the end, he redefines the political possibility for its epistemological rupture. This beginning releases the reader back into the world as a listener whose ears are now pricked, that is, alert to the historical injuries that sustain subject formation. In this way, the formal elision of the song animates the autobiographical locus of the book, its subject and its self. In other words, it is a locus that has to be displaced in order to be represented.  This displacement is not merely symbolic, owing to the structure of language as such, but to or the real displacement of exile, the forcible entry into an imperial or colonizing language while one’s mother tongue is extracted, stolen, or erased.

Door of No Return, Cape Coast Castle, Ghana, Image by Flickr User Greg Neate

Here, I point to black feminism and its transformative use of psychoanalysis. Spillers begins her intensely psychoanalytic essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” with Du Bois’ prediction for a 20th century that will be defined by “the problem of the color line.” But she argues the color line is a “spatiotemporal configuration” to which must be added another and weightier thematic: the revelation of the figure of the “black woman,” i.e. a “particular figuration of the split subject that psychoanalytic theory posits” (65). This split—between the “I” and the “me”—is defined for Lacan by the entry into language. The Freudian primal scene is triangulated by the threat of castration that underwrites the boy’s entry into language. Though imaginary, it was nonetheless literal, localized in genital fantasies. For Lacan, castration is instead a more a generalized cut between the signifier and signified, the conscious and the unconscious. No one, male or female, escapes this cut, and the formation of the “I,” the subject, is contingent upon the separations and losses that language first negotiates. The infant first learns words to articulate pleasure and pain, its separation from things. We forever have the word because we don’t have the thing.

When Spillers takes up psychoanalysis it is to make the radical claim that the New World is “written in blood.” There is not the fantasy of castration, but rather a history of “actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile,” a “theft of the body” that severs it from its motive, will, and desire (67). Spillers insists not on crimes against the body (a more traditional category in psychoanalysis), but what she calls the “flesh” in its capacity to be harmed. Flesh forms the basis of a central distinction between captive and liberated subject-positions. By the primary narrative of flesh, she continues, “we mean its seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship’s hole, fallen, or ‘escaped’ overboard.”

Lacan’s move is de-literalize castration in favor of structure; Spillers (poststructuralist) move is to re-literalize it, but without losing the insight that the cut is language itself, the separation between word and thing. Spillers’ point, however, is that psychoanalysis is incomplete until it can think these transhistorical questions. By this same token, I would argue, sound studies remains incomplete if it cannot transform what we think we are listening for in language. Lacan insists that the word is an irremediable cut or severance from a thing that it nonetheless brings into being through naming. Sound studies misrecognizes itself if it thinks that sound isn’t precisely what is to be located and listened for through the cut between word and thing.

The memory of “Do ba – na co – ba” is both sung and heard from within that cut. These words (that are also not words) are the coming into being of a thing that cannot be named, or is sounded out rather than named. We are suddenly placed into a terrain—and mode of listening—not totally familiar to the origins of psychoanalysis, unless we include Du Bois. We enter into real implications for the primal scene. At the beginning of Souls, Du Bois elliptically notes “the red stain of bastardy,” which designates the rape of black women by white men. Is not the trauma of this stain indirectly registered by Du Bois when listening to “Do ba – na co – ba,” as the crooning of a kidnapped woman? The meaning of its sound is “well understood”—but never put into words. This unnamed Bantu woman’s crooning is a song of becoming violently undifferentiated, a thing, alienated, and forced out of language: it is a song of the flesh. In this way, Du Bois’ political subject position cannot be fully separated from the flesh of the past whose searing and ripping “transfers,” Spillers suggests, across generations. With Du Bois, then, we encounter a subject and bodily ego with memories that are not entirely personal, but rather transpersonal.

For Du Bois, the memory of listening is animated by the fantasy of belonging to a lost language out of which his authorial “voice” and with it, the sorrow songs, emerge. The place of the mother’s voice in psychoanalysis is often one that sweetly echoes back and repeats the self to itself. That is why we are drawn to lullabies; they sonically contain and affirm us.  Barthes famously writes of the “grain of the voice.” “That is what the “grain” would be: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue . . . [Emphasis mine]” (270). But this body is not the flesh. The grain is the voluptuousness of a voice speaking its “mother tongue.”

“Foam” by Flickr User Melissa Emmons

It is not that Du Bois is without voluptuous memories of a mother’s voice, but rather that he elevates a different kind of auditory heritage of the self. He writes of the sorrow songs as “some echo of haunting melody.” There are two orders of remove in what is presupposed by Barthes to be a perfectly reflexive scene. It is not that Du Bois did not as an infant experience this conjectured scene, but that it is doubled by another that does not enter into psychoanalytic discourse without its completion by black feminism, postcolonialism, and other discourses that begin from the premise of historical trauma and stolen mother tongues.

Du Bois was able to listen for what Freud repressed. Du Bois writes down not only the melody as he remembers it, as it has been passed down to him, but also the sounds of her words in Romanized letters that approximate her phonemes. The melody has persisted in spite of the mystery of the words. But what becomes apparent in their approximation, as phonemes, is both retention and loss. The Bantu woman sings in a lost mother tongue; singing, she is in the midst of being forcibly taken away from language, and the song acts as a trace.

Next week, Napolin’s third essay will further explore the psychoanalytic listening Du Bois enacts via The Souls of Black Folk through a reading of Barry Jenkins’ “stunningly lyrical and psychologically complex coming-of-age film, Moonlight,” and its use of wave-sound aural imagery that “continually marks a desire for “return” to maternal undifferentiation and oneness, and yet. . .provides the space for two embodied memories that cannot be compassed by traumatic separation.” 

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parleFifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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“A Sinister Resonance”: Joseph Conrad’s Malay Ear and Auditory Cultural Studies–Julie Beth Napolin

Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death“–Julie Beth Napolin

Listening to and as Contemporaries: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud–Julie Beth Napolin

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