In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”
Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:
I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) January 29, 2018
I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?
The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:
Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.
He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.
Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it. He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.
The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:
In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.
He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.
In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.
As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.
In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.
That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.
Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:
Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?
Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.
That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.
Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.
All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.
Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.
Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:
What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.
But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.
The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.
In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.
I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?
Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”
“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.
Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
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Sounding Out! Podcast #63: The Sonic Landscapes of Unwelcome: Women of Color, Sonic Harassment, and Public Space
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This podcast focuses on the sonic landscapes of unwelcome which women and femmes of color step into when we walk down the street, take the bus, and navigate public and professional spaces. Women of color must navigate harassment, violent, and sexually abusive language and noise in public space. While walking to the market or bus, a man or many might yell at us, blow us an unwanted kiss, comment on our bodies, describe explicit sexual acts, or call us “bitch.” The way that women and femmes do or do not respond to such unwelcome language can result in retaliation and escalated violence. A type of harm reduction, women often wear headphones and listen to music while in public for the specific purpose of cancelling out the hostile sonic landscape into which we are walking. The way that women and femmes make use of technology and music as a tool of survival in hostile sonic landscapes is a form of femme tech as well as femme defense. What sort of psychological and emotional effect does constant and repeated exposure to abusive noise have on the minds and bodies of women of color?
Locatora Radio is a Radiophonic Novela hosted by Mala Muñoz and Diosa Femme, two self-identified locxs. Also known as “Las Mamis of Myth & Bullshit”, Las Locatoras make space for the exploration and celebration of the experiences, brilliance, creativity, and legacies of femmes and womxn of color. Each Capitulo of Locatora Radio is made with love and brujeria, a moment in time made by brown girls, for brown girls. Listen as Las Locatoras keep brown girl hour and discuss the layers and levels of femmeness and race, mental health, trauma, gender experience, sexuality, and oppression.
Featured image of Mala and Diosa is used with permission by the authors.
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“People’s lives are at stake”: A conversation about Law, Listening, and Sound between James Parker and Lawrence English
Lawrence English is composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of perception, through live performance and installation, to create works that ponder subtle transformations of space and ask audiences to become aware of that which exists at the edge of perception.
James Parker is a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School, where he is also Director of the research program ‘Law, Sound and the International’ at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities. James’ research addresses the many relations between law, sound and listening, with a particular focus at the moment on sound’s weaponisation. His monograph Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi (OUP 2015) explores the trial of Simon Bikindi, who was accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of inciting genocide with his songs (30% discount available with the code ALAUTHC4). James is also a music critic and radio broadcaster. He will be co-curating an exhibition and parallel public program on Eavesdropping at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne between July and October 2018.
Lawrence English: James, thanks for taking the time to correspond with me. I was interested in having this conversation with you as we’re both interested in sound, but perhaps approaching its potential applications and implications in somewhat different ways. And yet we have a good deal of potential cross over in our sonic interests too. Particularly in the way that meaning is sought and extracted from our engagements with sound. How that meaning is constructed and what is extracted and amplified from those possible, meaningful readings of sound in time and place. I read with great interest your work on acoustic jurisprudence, specifically how you almost build a case for an ontological position that’s relational between sound and the law. I wondered if you could perhaps start with a summary of this framework you’re pushing towards? I am interested to know how it is you have approached this potentiality in the meaning of sound and the challenges that lie in working around an area that is still so diffuse, at least in a legal setting.
James Parker: Let me begin by saying a sincere thank you for the invitation. As a long-time fan of your work, it’s a pleasure. It’s also symptomatic in a way, because – so far at least – the art world has been much more interested in my research than the legal academy. When I’m in a law faculty and I say that my work is about law’s relationship(s) with sound, people are mostly surprised, sometimes they’re interested, but they rarely care very much. I don’t mean this as a slight. It’s just that their first instinct is always that I’m doing something esoteric: that my work doesn’t really ‘apply’ to them as someone interested in refugee law, contract, torts, evidence, genocide, or whatever the case may be. As you point out though, that’s not the way I see it at all. One of the things I’ve tried to show in my work is just how deeply law, sound and listening are bound up with each other. This is true in all sorts of different ways, whether or not the relationship is properly ‘ontological’.
At the most obvious level, the soundscape (both our sonic environment and how we relate to it) is always also a lawscape. Our smartphones, loudspeakers, radios and headsets are all proprietary, as is the music we listen to on them and the audio-formats on which that music is encoded. Law regulates and fails to regulate the volume and acoustic character of our streets, skies, workplaces, bedrooms and battlefields. Courts and legislatures claim to govern the kinds of vocalizations we make – what we can say or sing, where and when – and who gets to listen. As yet another music venue, airport, housing development or logging venture receives approval, new sounds enter the world, others leave it and things are subtly reconstituted as a result.
What’s striking when you look at the legal scholarship, however, is that how sound is conceived for such purposes gets very little attention. There are exceptions: in the fields of copyright and anti-noise regulation particularly. But for the most part, legal thought and practice is content to work with ‘common sense’ assumptions which would be immediately discredited by anyone who spends their time thinking hard about what sound is and does. So as legal academics, legislators, judges, and so on, we need to be much better at attending to law’s ‘sonic imagination’. When an asylum seeker is denied entry to the UK because of the way he pronounces the Arabic word for ‘tomato’ (which actually happened…the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has done some fantastic work on this), what set of relations between voice, accent and citizenship is at stake? When a person is accused of inciting genocide with their songs (in this instance a Rwandan musician called Simon Bikindi), what theory or theories of music manifest themselves in the decision-making body’s discourse and in the application of its doctrine? These are really important questions, it seems to me. To put it bluntly: people’s lives are at stake.
Another way of thinking about the law-sound relation would be to think about the role played by sound in legal practice: in courtrooms, legislatures etc. For a singer to be tried for genocide, for instance, his songs must be heard. Audio and audio- video recordings must be entered as evidence and played aloud to the court; a witness or two may sing. How? When? Why? The judicial soundscape is surprisingly diverse, it turns out. Gavels knock (at least in some jurisdictions), oaths are sworn, judgment is pronounced; and all of this increasingly into microphones, through headsets, and transmitted via audio-video link to prisons and elsewhere. This stuff matters. It warrants thinking about.
Outside the courtroom, sound is often the medium of law’s articulation: what materialises it, gives it reality, shape, force and effect. Think of the police car’s siren, for instance, or a device like the LRAD, which I know you’re also interested in. Or in non-secular jurisdictions, we could think equally of the church bells in Christianity, the call to prayer in Islam or the songlines of Aboriginal Australia. The idea that law today is an overwhelmingly textual and visual enterprise is pretty commonplace. But it’s an overstatement. Sound remains a key feature of law’s conduct, transmission and embodiment.
And to bring me back to where I started, I feel like artists and musicians are generally better tuned in to this than us lawyers.
English: Given the fact that the voice, and I suppose I mean both literally and metaphorically, reigns so heavily in the development and execution of the law it’s surprising that the discourses around sound aren’t a little more engaged. That being said, it’s not that surprising really, as I’d argue that until recently the broader conversations around sound and listening have been rather sparse. It’s only really in the past three decades have we started to see a swell of critical writings around these topics. The past decade particularly has produced a wealth of thought that addresses sound.
I suppose though that really this situation you describe in the law is tied back into the questions that surround the recognition of sound and the complexities of audition more generally. I can’t help but feel that sound has suffered historically from a lack of theoretical investigation. Partly this is due to the late development of tools that provided the opportunity for sound to linger beyond its moment of utterance. That recognition of the subjectivity of audition, revealed in those first recordings of the phonograph must have been a powerful moment. In that second, suddenly, it was apparent that how we listen, and what it is we extract from a moment to moment encounter with sound is entirely rooted in our agency and intent as a listener. The phonograph’s capturing of audio, by contrast, is without this socio-cultural agency. It’s a receptacle that’s technologically bound in the absolute.
I wonder if part of the anxiety, if that’s the word that could be used, around the way that sound is framed in a legal sense is down to its impermanence. That until quite recently we had to accept the experience of sound, as entirely tethered to that momentary encounter. I sense that the law is slow to adapt to new forms and structures. Where do you perceive the emergence of sound as a concern for law? At what point did the law, start to listen?
Parker: Wow, there’s so much in this question. In relation to your point about voice, of course lawyers do ‘get it’ on some level. If you speak to a practitioner, they’re sure to have an anecdote or two about the sonorous courtroom and the (dark) arts of legal eloquence. You may even get an academic to recognise that a theory of voice is somehow implicit in contemporary languages of democracy, citizenship and participatory politics: this familiar idea that (each of us a little sovereign) together we manifest the collective ‘voice’ of the people. But you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone in the legal academy actually studying any of this (outside the legal academy, I can thoroughly recommend Mladen Dolar’s incredible A Voice and Nothing More, which is excellent – if brief – on the voice’s legal and political dimensions). One explanation, as you say, might be that it’s only relatively recently that a discourse has begun to emerge around sound across the academy: in which case law’s deafness would be symptomatic of a more general inattention to sound and listening. That’s part of the story, I think. But it’s also true that the contemporary legal academy has developed such an obsession with doctrine and the promise of law reform that really any inquiry into law’s material or metaphysical aspects is considered out of the ordinary. In this sense, voice is just one area of neglect amongst many.
As for your points about audio-recording, it’s certainly true that access to recordings makes research on sound easier in some respects. There’s no way I could have written my book on the trial of Simon Bikindi, for instance, without access to the audio-archive of all the hearings. Having said that, I’m pretty suspicious of this idea that the phonograph, or for that matter any recording/reproductive technology could be ‘without agency’ as you put it. It strikes me that the agency of the machine/medium is precisely one of the things we should be attending to.
English: I may have been a little flippant. I agree there’s nothing pure about any technology and we should be suspicious of any claims towards that. It seems daily we’re reminded that our technologies and their relationships with each other pose a certain threat, whether that be privacy through covert recording or potential profiling as suggested by the development of behavioral recognition software with CCTV cameras.
Parker: Not just that. CCTV cameras are being kitted out with listening devices now too. There was a minor controversy about their legality and politics earlier this year in Brisbane in fact.
English: Thinking about sound technologies, at the most basic level, the pattern of the microphone, cardioid, omni and the like, determines a kind of possibility for the articulation of voice, and its surrounds. I think the microphone conveys a very strong political position in that its design lends itself so strongly to the power of singular voice. That has manifest itself in everything from media conferences and our political institutions, through to the inane power plays of ‘lead singers’ in 1980s hard rock. The microphone encourages, both in its physical and acoustic design, a certain singular focus. It’s this singularity that some artists, say those working with field recording, are working against. This has been the case in some of the field recordings I have undertaken over the years. It has been a struggle to address my audition and contrast it with that of the microphone. How is it these two rather distinct fields of audition might be brought into relief? I imagine these implications extend into the courtroom.
Parker: Absolutely. Microphones have been installed in courtrooms for quite a while now, though not necessarily (or at least not exclusively) for the purposes of amplification. Most courts are relatively small, so when mics do appear it’s typically for archival purposes, and especially to assist in the production of trial transcripts. This job used to be done by stenographers, of course, but increasingly it’s automated.
So no, in court, microphones don’t tend to be so solipsistic. In fact, in some instances they can help facilitate really interesting collective speaking and listening practices. At institutions like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or for the Former Yugoslavia, for instance, trials are conducted in multiple languages at once, thanks to what’s called ‘simultaneous interpretation’. Perhaps you’re familiar with how this works from the occasional snippets you see of big multi-national conferences on the news, but the technique was first developed at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII.
What happens is that when someone speaks into a microphone – whether it’s a witness, a lawyer or a judge – what they’re saying gets relayed to an interpreter watching and listening on from a soundproof booth. After a second or two’s delay, the interpreter starts translating what they’re saying into the target language. And then everyone else in the courtroom just chooses what language they want to listen to on the receiver connected to their headset. Nuremberg operated in four languages, the ICTR in three. And of course, this system massively affects the nature of courtroom eloquence. Because of the lag between the original and interpreted speech, proceedings move painfully slowly.
Courtroom speech develops this odd rhythm whereby everyone is constantly pausing mid-sentence and waiting for the interpretation to come through. And the intonation of interpreted speech is obviously totally different from the original too. Not only is a certain amount of expression or emotion necessarily lost along the way, the interpreter will have an accent, they’ll have to interpret speech from both genders, and then – because the interpreter is performing their translation on the fly (this is extraordinarily difficult to do by the way… it takes years of training) – inevitably they end up placing emphasis on odd words, which can make what they say really difficult to follow. As a listener, you have to concentrate extremely hard: learn to listen past the pauses, force yourself to make sense of the stumbling cadence, strange emphasis and lack of emotion.
On one level, this is a shame of course: there’s clearly a ‘loss’ here compared with a trial operating in a single language. But if it weren’t for simultaneous interpretation, these Tribunals couldn’t function at all. You could say the same about the UN as a whole actually.
English: I agree. Though for what it’s worth it does seem as though we’re on a pathway to taking the political and legal dimensions of sound more seriously. Your research is early proof of that, as are cases such as Karen Piper’s suit against the city of Pittsburgh in relation to police use of an LRAD. As far as the LRAD is concerned, along with other emerging technologies like the Hypershield and the Mosquito, it’s as though sound’s capacity for physical violence, and the way this is being harnessed by police and military around the world somehow brings these questions more readily into focus.
Parker: I think that’s right. There’s definitely been a surge of interest in sound’s ‘weaponisation’ recently. In terms of law suits, in addition to the case brought by Karen Piper against the City of Pittsburgh, LRAD use has been litigated in both New York and Toronto, and there was a successful action a couple of years back in relation to a Mosquito installed in a mall in Brisbane.
On the more scholarly end of things, Steve Goodman’s work on ‘sonic warfare’ has quickly become canonical, of course. But I’d also really recommend J. Martin Daughtry’s new book on the role of sound and listening in the most recent Iraq war. Whereas Goodman focuses on the more physiological end of things – sound’s capacity both to cause physical harm (deafness, hearing loss, miscarriages etc) and to produce more subtle autonomic or affective responses (fear, desire and so on) – Daughtry is also concerned with questions of psychology and the ways in which our experience even of weaponised sound is necessarily mediated by our histories as listeners. For Daughtry, the problem of acoustic violence always entails a spectrum between listening and raw exposure.
These scholarly interventions are really important, I think (even though neither Goodman nor Daughtry are interested in drawing out the legal dimensions of their work). Because although it’s true that sound’s capacity to wound provides a certain urgency to the debate around the political and legal dimensions of the contemporary soundscape, it’s important not to allow this to become the only framework for the discussion. And that certainly seems to have happened with the LRAD.
Of course, the LRAD’s capacity to do irreparable physiological harm matters. Karen Piper now has permanent hearing loss, and I’m sure she’s not the only one. But that shouldn’t be where the conversation around this and other similar devices begins and ends. The police and the military have always been able to hurt people. It’s the LRAD’s capacity to coerce and manage the location and movements of bodies by means of sheer acoustic force – and specifically, by exploiting the peculiar sensitivity of the human ear to mid-to-high pitch frequencies at loud volumes – that’s new. To me, the LRAD is at its most politically troubling precisely to the extent that it falls just short of causing injury. Whether or not lasting injury results, those in its way will have been subjected to the ‘sonic dominance’ of the state.
So we should be extremely wary of the discourse of ‘non-lethality’ that is being mobilised by to justify these kinds of technologies: to convince us that they are somehow more humane than the alternatives: the lesser of two evils, more palatable than bullets and batons. The LRAD renders everyone before it mute biology. It erases subjectivity to work directly on the vulnerable ear. And that strikes me as something worthy of our political and legal attention.
English: I couldn’t agree more. These conversations need to push further outward into the blurry unknown edges if we’re to realise any significant development in how the nature of sound is theorised and analysed moving forward into the 21st century. Recently I have been researching the shifting role of the siren, from civil defence to civil assault. I’ve been documenting the civil defence sirens in Los Angeles county and using them as a starting point from which to trace this shift towards a weaponisation of sound. The jolt out of the cold war into the more spectre-like conflicts of this century has been like a rupture and the siren is one of a number of sonic devices that I feel speak to this redirection of how sound’s potential is considered and applied in the everyday.
Featured Image: San Francisco 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Jury Box, Image by Flickr User Thomas Hawk, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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The Noises of Finance–N. Adriana Knouf
Voices at Work: Listening to and for Elsewhere at Public Gatherings in Toronto, Canada (at So-called 150)
“Decolonization,” Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang propose in “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” “is not an ‘and.’ It is an elsewhere.”
Elsewhere, not here, not now. Not here. Not now. Enough!
In the context of decolonization, elsewhere is a refusal to accept the conditions of life as is in the here and now.
Elsewhere is that place that already is, that place that used to be, that place that might just be.
Elsewhere, an endeavor to enact otherwise.
Elsewhere, a commitment to perform the work to create, memorialize, and sustain some place else because the here and now are not enough.
This essay listens to and for elsewhere in the voices performing decolonial efforts at some public gatherings—rallies, protests, marches, and memorials—in Toronto between March 2016 and June 2017. These gatherings took place in the lead-up to Canada (at so-called) 150, the federally funded, almost countrywide commemoration of Canadian Confederacy. At these public gatherings, the dissenting sounds of elsewhere reverberate to break the silence tantamount to Canada as a white settler colonial nation-state. It is by disrupting this silence that elsewhere takes form; “a break of something,” writes Sara Ahmed in her latest book, Living a Feminist Life, is also “the start of something” (200). This essay is about listening to the voice as a social prism of sound that disperses and reflects power. Thus by listening to and for elsewhere at public gatherings, we hear voices at work—in formation—producing an elsewhere by refusing to comply with the sonic demands of a Canadianness based on white settler colonialism, dependent on state-sanctioned multiculturalism, and rendered as silence.
Canadian Multiculturalism as Silent Visibility,
or the Visible Silence of White Settler Colonialism as Canada
Silence is often a condition of belonging that nation-states attach to citizenship. Indeed in Canada, visibility begets silence. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968–1979; 1980–1984) adopted Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework as official policy in 1971. This would subsequently catalyze the appearance of the figure of the visible minority, a demographic designation for anyone who is non-white and non-Indigenous but used as an umbrella term to denote “person of color.” The visible minority has been central to the discourse of diversity as multiculturalism; and diversity continues to be an enduring tenet of Canadian nationalism.
However, according to Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, the policy of multiculturalism is “primarily concerned with mobilising diversity for the project of nation-building, as well as limiting that diversity to symbolic rather than political forms” (80). To be understood as Canadian, one must ascribe to its multicultural terms, namely accepting white settler colonialism—and the sonic politics of whiteness—as norm; and typically, whiteness is thought to be unmarked and inaudible, silent.
It is in this way that in Canada silence is understood as harmony. Another way to put this: social harmony is believed to derive from silence. Any person or group or form of sound that breaks this social contract, what Audra Simpson refers to in “The State is a Man: Theresa Spence, Loretta Saunders and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty” as “Canadian silence,” is categorized as noise or noisy. Thus in the context of the US, and yet very much applicable to Canada, Jennifer Lynn Stoever writes in her book The Sonic Color Line, “As dominant listening practices discipline us to process white male ways of sounding as default, natural, normal, and desirable…they deem alternate ways of listening and sounding aberrant” (12).
Social censorship in Canada of what can and cannot be said in public is a distinguishing feature of everyday life. Silence is a sonic means by which white settler colonialism thrives. Stay quiet. Be quiet. Or, else; where the threat becomes a dare to live a life unrestrained by what Lesley Belleau describes as “the false safety of silence” in The Winter We Danced (181).
This else though. What are the possibilities of this else? Where might it lead?
Black Lives Matter Toronto Rally /// #BLMTOblackOUT
#BLMTOtentcity /// Toronto Police Service Headquarters
Saturday, March 26, 2016
It was a blustery, cold, spring day. Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) had organized a rally, #BLMTOblackOUT, to commemorate the then one-week anniversary of #BLMTOtentcity—their occupation of Toronto Police Service Headquarters’ outdoor plaza. On Sunday, March 20, 2016 outside Toronto City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square, BLMTO held a rally against anti-black racism—police brutality (in particular the killing of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby by the police), carding, and the defunding of black cultural programs, Afrofest namely. By evening’s end, the rally had moved to Toronto Police Service Headquarters where it became an occupation that lasted two weeks.
BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE,” a BLMTO member shouted into a microphone; a call and declaration of a black elsewhere affirmed by the audience’s response: “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE.”
#BLMTOblackOUT, Toronto Police Service Headquarters, Toronto, Saturday, March 26, 2016, recording by author
She reiterated, “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE,” as Rhythms of Resistance Toronto, a band that performs at social justice events across the city, began to accompany her with a samba groove; this was elsewhere as a black diasporic space. “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE,” confirmed the audience in response who were now clapping along to the beat. A back-and-forth ensued where repetition and the obstinacy of the leader’s voice marked what Daphne Brooks has identified in “All That You Can’t Leave behind”: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe” as “urgency and excess.” This urgency and excess were further compounded by the start of another chant, which interlocked with the one she was leading. Another member of BLMTO then exclaimed into a microphone, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.” Some of the audience members began to heed her call. “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE / NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.” Together, the two chants, loud and overpowering, created a tension that paralleled the social pressures wrought by a Canadian silence that takes the form of anti-black racism.
After a few rounds of the layered chant were exhausted, the second leader stopped to catch her breath. By bringing the chant to a halt, she demonstrated not only the toll that shouting takes on a person but also the labor, power, and duress needed, according to Kelley Tatro, “to express personal and collective rage.” “I can’t breathe,” said Eric Garner eleven times while the police officers holding him down against the pavement disavowed him of his personhood. In the US and Canada, breathing and shouting are presumed antithetical to life within the realms of white settler colonialism.
Shouting, performing anger and defiance via sound in public, is considered noise under the logics of whiteness. Thus, as Jack Halberstam writes in the introduction to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, “In order to bring colonialism to an end then, one does not speak truth to power, one has to inhabit the crazy nonsensical, ranting language of the other, the other who has been rendered a nonentity by colonialism” (8). What both BLMTO members leading chants indicated at #BLMTOblackOUT is that shouting, in this case in the form of chanting, is another way of breathing elsewhere into existence.
#NoDAPL Solidarity March with Standing Rock
Queens Park to Nathan Phillips Square
Saturday, November 5, 2016
It began where many politically motivated public gatherings in Toronto do: outside Queen’s Park, which houses the Government of Ontario offices. Participants made speeches, chanted, cheered, jeered, and sang songs. The crowd then headed south on University Avenue sounding their discontent in front of the US Consulate building, which coincidentally is on the way to Nathan Phillips Square.
The march had been organized by and alongside Indigenous groups to show support for protesters at Standing Rock. In solidarity with the Water Protectors holding camp at Sacred Stone Camp, marchers in Toronto were expressing their disapproval of the US government’s efforts to construct an oil pipeline through Indigenous territory, a project that endangers clean water resources and violates treaties.
Once at Nathan Phillips Square, Indigenous people led participants in a pan-tribal round dance. Most strongly since Idle No More, or #IdleNoMore, in the winter of 2012/2013, round dances became emblems of Indigenous self-determination across what is typically referred to as Canada. Taking place in public venues, notably malls, as part of Idle No More actions, round dances served as communal claims not to Canada and Canadianness but rather to Turtle Island and Indigeneity.
Along with drumming, singing makes up the sonic elements of a round dance all the while those participants not playing a drum in the middle of the circle hold hands and move in a clockwise direction to the music. The high-pitched singing voice invites and welcomes those who have passed to join. In this way, the singing voice is an understanding that life and kinship do not cease at death. As such, the high-pitched singing voice is also a reach towards something else, a nameless elsewhere describable, graspable, through vocables. These vocables, these sonic registers of possibility, cannot be contained by the limitations of any official language. As part of round dances, then, vocables announce that while this elsewhere has yet to be legitimized through language, it exists in sound. And elsewhere’s existence is celebrated by what Anna Hoefnagels writes in “Northern Style Powwow Music: Musical Features and Meanings” are the improvised “whoops, shouts, yelps or ululations by singers” (14).
Through round dances, Indigenous people recognize that according to treaties signed by Indigenous groups and European settlers the land and its resources are to be shared. Round dances are a means to assert that Turtle Island is not another name for North America but rather a place that exists alongside North America.
Women’s March on Washington: Toronto
Queen’s Park to Nathan Phillips Square
Saturday, January 21, 2017
The labor, the creativity, of women of color is largely to thank for the organizing and mobilizing efforts that led to the Women’s March on Washington. Toronto’s “sister march” made evident the ways in which the work that women of color, particularly black women, perform in producing elsewhere has and continues to go unrecognized. The use of songs with black female vocals to lead Toronto’s Women’s March is an example of how audibility accompanies invisibility in Canada.
he joyous tenor of the march was introduced partially through disco and disco-inflected songs like Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” (1979) and the Eurythmics’ and Aretha Franklin’s duet “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985). March organizers wanted participants to feel that this march was a celebration of sisterhood, of women, like Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, coming together harmoniously as kin. Intersectionality need not apply—maybe as a catchword but definitely not in practice.
Women’s March on Washington: Toronto, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Saturday, January 21, 2017, recording by author
The emotional labor that Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge and Aretha Franklin perform in these songs was not meant to be heard as women belaboring a black feminist, or womanist or queer, elsewhere; instead, marchers—like much of white feminism historically—enjoyed the benefits, without the risks, of an elsewhere made possible by the emotional labor that black female singers perform in dance music. In the voices of Sister Sledge and Aretha Franklin, some marchers did not recognize the invisible labor required to flourish in white settler heteropatriarchal nation-states; at the march, the power of black female voices was misappropriated to signal thriving because of white settler colonialism, paternalism, and blanket sisterhood.
Women’s March on Washington: Toronto, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Saturday, January 21, 2017, recording by author
Barbara Hall Park
Monday, June 12, 2017
Adjacent to Toronto’s AIDS Memorial in Barbara Hall Park, attendees gathered to remember the forty-nine victims of the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The event commemorated the one-year anniversary of the shooting with a short film screening, a DJ set, musical performances, poems, short speeches, and food. Surrounded and sustained by the light of candles, the names of the forty-nine primarily Latinx victims were read by the event’s three MCs against the flickering screen of the lit wicks.
Pulse Memorial Event, Barbara Hall Park, Toronto, Monday, June 12, 2017, image by author
|Stanley Almodovar III, age 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Antonio D. Brown, 30
Darryl R. Burt II, 29
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Simon A. Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis D. Conde, 39
Cory J. Connell, 21
Tevin E. Crosby, 25
Franky J. Dejesus Velazquez, 50
|Deonka D. Drayton, 32
Mercedez M. Flores, 26
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Juan R. Guerrero, 22
Paul T. Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel A. Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason B. Josaphat, 19
Eddie J. Justice, 30
Anthony L. Laureano Disla, 25
Christopher A. Leinonen, 32
Brenda L. Marquez McCool, 49
Jean C. Mendez Perez, 35
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Kimberly Morris, 37
Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, 27
|Luis O. Ocasio-Capo, 20
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25
Eric I. Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
Christopher J. Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier E. Serrano Rosado, 35
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Shane E. Tomlinson, 33
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis D. Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald A. Wright, 31
The reading of their names was an incantation of forty-nine lives lost and an invocation of an elsewhere maintained through remembrance. The vocalization of their names was thus a commitment to an understanding of intimacy that refuses the state’s limited definitions of what and whom constitutes a (grievable) life; and concurrently, their names were sonic acknowledgments of the violence that is basic to life for many under white settler colonialism, what Christina Sharpe calls “being in the wake.” Their names, too, were evocations of the queer of color dancefloor. It us under and around the disco ball, after all, that many queers of color enact an elsewhere, love light in flight. Therefore, the reading of the forty-nine names was an assertion that life and intimacy are sonic demands and collective endeavors.
George Hislop Park to Old City Hall
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Annually, some queer Canadians take it upon themselves to organize a Night March, an unofficial (by choice) Pride event that insists that Pride has been and will continue to remain political. Night March is a refusal to abide by the respectability politics attached to the visibility and corporatism that Pride garners across Toronto. “LET’S GET CRITICAL, OUR PRIDE IS POLITICAL,” one of the chants goes. Participants meet at a predetermined location, announced through posters and social media, somewhere near or in the Church and Wellesley Neighborhood—Toronto’s “gayborhood.” Before setting out to march, participants listen to a small set of speakers who share information on some of the issues that are not being discussed at Toronto’s official Pride events: the defunding of organizations working on HIV/AIDS and the housing discrimination faced by trans women and sex workers, for example.
The gathering at George Hislop Park this year also made evident a particular rift among LGBTQ+ people, groups, and institutions surrounding this year’s Pride festivities: whether to support BLMTO’s actions and demands at last year’s Pride Parade, namely the removal of uniform police from partaking in future parades. On Sunday, June 26, 2016 and in their role as honored guests of the parade, members of BLMTO halted Toronto’s Pride Parade at the intersection of Yonge and College Streets for thirty minutes—to the dismay of some and the approval of others. It was then that BLMTO served Pride Toronto, the organization that runs Pride in the city, with a list of demands. Pride Toronto’s Executive Director at time Mathieu Chantelois hastily signed BLMTO’s list of demands only to retract his approval shortly thereafter. Following months of heated debate and backlash against BLMTO, the Pride Toronto membership formally agreed to adopt all of BLMTO’s demands at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) on January 27, 2017—uniformed police would not march at this year’s Pride parade.
At George Hislop Park, Night March participants were unequivocal in their support of BLMTO. The mostly millennial and predominantly white gathering’s chants, which they shouted as they made their way down Church Street, included “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.”
Night March participants even halted traffic on College Street as they briefly occupied the traffic lanes in front of Toronto Police Service Headquarters. Accompanied by Rhythms of Resistance Toronto, a few participants called out “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE.” The rest of the gathering responded, “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE.”
Night March, Toronto Police Service Headquarters, Toronto, June 21, 2017, image by author
Police officers who were following the marchers on bicycles sounded out a short siren, a sound of disapproval and a warning to disperse. The marchers continued chanting. They then switched chants and began shouting in unison, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.” After a few rounds of this chant, one participant led the gathering into another chant:
WHEN BLACK LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x9
WHEN TRANS LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
WHEN INDIGENOUS LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
WHEN WOMEN’S LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
WHEN QUEER LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
The chants at Night March were sonic testaments of an elsewhere impossible to imagine and enact without the collective labor of BLMTO’s membership since its formation in 2014, which has included but has not been limited to #BLMTOtentcity and their protests at Toronto’s 2016 Pride Parade. The chants were also a compilation and validation of noisy political activity—a loud elsewhere—in a city and in a nation-state that prefers, promotes, and is predicated on the silence, the violence, that is white settler colonialism.
“Only together,” argues Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera, “can we be a force” (209).
Together, these voices at public gatherings say NO to Toronto, Canada at so-called 150; NO is a refusal to be complicit, to stay silent, to death. These are voices that do not consent to white settler colonialism. A NO to police brutality, the disappearance and murders of Indigenous women and girls, the conditions that drive Indigenous youth to suicide, lack of clean drinking water, carding, anti-semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes, the different forms of violence LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans women, face, the municipal, provincial, and federal governments defunding and unfunding of public housing and healthcare programs. It is by amplifying and listening to these NOs that we actually hear the workings of a YES, to an affirmation of elsewhere in the here and now that is always already attuned to the past and future, to lives—black, trans, Indigenous, feminine, queer—that matter, to life otherwise.
Featured Image: Round Dance, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Saturday, November 5, 2016, photo by author
Gabriela Jimenez defended her PhD dissertation in ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto this spring. Her dissertation is on the ways in which nonnormatively gendered and sexually oriented persons in Mexico City use musical performances to alter their surroundings. Her writing has been featured in Black Music Research Journal and The Fader.
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