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Instrumental: Power, Voice, and Labor at the Airport

Voices CarryWelcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts.  What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end?  Artist Asa Mendelsohn opens the forum with his critical and artistic work on the voice as an instrument of power. We are also honored that he lent Voices Carry a still from his work for our icon!–Jennifer Stoever


important, critical, foundational

Can we all do something about language here, and the frames that we use? […] We need to…stop already pre-redacting ourselves so that we can be quote ‘heard’ by these jackasses! They’re never gonna listen to us! — Mariame Kaba

Instrumental is a body of work featuring a series of vocal performances by airport security workers I filmed at the San Diego International Airport. The work takes up Mariame Kaba’s provocation, that those currently in power are never going to listen. How might relations of power be reordered around a voice? If voices are instruments, operating at once through a body and as a body, what kind of instrument is a voice of authority?


T

In September 2017, my proposal to produce a version of this project is accepted as part of a yearlong program curated by and for the San Diego International Airport. In October I put out a call for participation to airport security workers, in search of singers to perform songs of their choosing in front of a camera. There are emails with curators and security managers, logistics, parameters. I film over the winter and install a version of the work as a public art project in the spring, the first year of my medical gender transition.

When we meet at the far end of Terminal 2 in January, T is a combination of nervous and enthusiastic I wasn’t expecting. He’s so jittery that I almost tell him to stop and rest. I link my sneaking feeling of shame to an assumed position of authority, having arrived like this, multiple cameras, my university affiliation.

But while nervous, T’s also brimming, lighting up. His name tag catches gold light, bouncing against his gray Air Traffic Officer uniform.

T proposes two songs. Neither are in languages that he speaks in his daily life and he keeps forgetting words.

“Cómo te voy a olvidar”

How am I going to forget you?

T says he learned the song from a former partner. He says girlfriend. He says he always felt self-conscious he couldn’t speak more Spanish. I guess that his family are Afro-Caribbean Spanish-speakers. I’m wrong. He’s also wrong about where I’m from. San Francisco, right?

T likes to sing karaoke. A coworker heard him and the rumor started going around: T has a beautiful voice. T’s voice is a soft instrument. In the airport, it is easily swallowed by environmental noise.

I film with T a second time, again meeting the last two hours of his ten-hour shift. He starts tired, nervous: stopping and restarting a song. Slowly, he warms up, dancing a cumbia. I sing with him when he forgets a line. We allow ourselves to take up more space in this quiet zone beyond the Air Canada counters. T dances with a moving chair.


Where will your next adventure take you?

Men in construction vests come in and out of a door beneath a banner: “Go Somewhere.” Construction is in process to expand the space occupied by border security.

Working in security means exercising jurisdiction over how other people move, who can move where, and with what freedom. What kind of freedom or movement is possible between us while someone is watching (an institution, a camera)?

Artist Gregg Bordowitz writes that “posing for the camera in advance of anticipated capture by the lens is a form of self-defense in the age of surveillance. It’s an act of self-authorship.” I don’t feel I understand fully what calls someone forward to perform. Is it a feeling they have something to share, a will towards “self-authorship”? I’m interested in not knowing where a performance starts and ends, not knowing when we become performers or our own authors, when we become complicit, exploited, when we are on or off the job. Most people work and are watched most of the time, without being heard: a series of performances delivered and received with varying degrees of care.


The sterile zone

The post-9/11 commercial airport in the United States is one among other types of places designed to reinforce a culture of surveillance and fear, to remind travelers the state has a say in their freedom of movement. A place designed to instill one kind of horror while thinly concealing another.

Spending time at the airport with people who spend a lot of time at the airport, the intricacy of the place unfolds, resembling what theorist Simone Browne calls a “security theater.” At moments SAN blurs into every other airport in the U.S. I’ve moved through or seen on a screen: streams of moving walkways, escalators — travelers wheeling bags, waiting, scrolling for ticket information on smartphones, scanning, travel-themed advertisements and watery public art commissions — a fragmented, moving stage.

From Asa Mendelsohn, Instrumental (2018)

The voice of the overhead announcement is an instrument of the airport security theater, summoning the stress of being read and misread, abused, glibly entertained, and sold overpriced breakfasts, while you are also in fear of missing something: everything that makes airports ultimate theaters for the machinery of the security state. As I edit footage from the airport, I become preoccupied by moments of tension between a singer’s voice and the voice of the overhead security announcement, instructing us about checkpoint procedures, orienting us, interpellating. A singer pauses to wait, or they continue, enduring the interruption. For a security worker vocalizing in uniform, does the space of the airport become an extension of their body? (Does their uniform matter?) In these moments of tension, it becomes more clear that a security worker’s performance as an extension of the airport’s body is an uneven one.


While SAN seems like any other airport in the U.S., there are points of exceptionality. SAN is much smaller than other airports serving international commercial flights. It is located centrally, widely accessible from much of the city. Checkpoint lines are rarely very long. SAN is, of course, primarily the port of entry for travelers with valid state identification and the ability to buy an airline ticket. These factors do not make SAN an equitable place to work, but they do add up to an effect: airport as sanitized space, a clean space, that, in my subjective experience, other airports aspire to but rarely achieve. A small feat of whitewashing, eighteen miles by car from the border crossing at San Ysidro. Friends have suggested about this project: “you would not have been able to do that anywhere else.” I would not have been granted access.

As I prepare to film at SAN, I’m sent mixed messages. Initially, a curator tells me I’ll be granted access to shoot in post-checkpoint areas of the airport, areas I learn that security workers call “the sterile zone.” Shortly before my first shoot, I’m told that, actually, it’d be too much work to get me clearance. I’m restricted to what are called “public” spaces, pre-security, outside the sterile zone.

From Asa Mendelsohn, Instrumental (2018)

Throughout this process, I wonder how I’m seen by people at the airport. I do not doubt that being white, small-bodied, and soft-voiced make me seem non-threatening. I’m a patient director. I smile at my own perversity. Staff approach me cautiously while I’m setting up and ask if I have a permit to be there, but always eventually smile back. A curator overlooks or disregards my pronouns, misgendering me in email correspondences and later in the interpretive text about the work. They eventually apologize.

How are my interests as an artist read? While “speaking up,” or “using your voice,” is often understood as a political right and responsibility of democratic process, appropriating someone else’s is at particular stake in art and documentary ethics. At the airport, I am seeking a form through which to acknowledge the ways we use each other’s voices and labor, to acknowledge the multiple zones within which we work at once.


Instrumentalized: used

A voice is always a shape and product of its body, and, at the same time, something other. Theorist Freya Jarman-Ivens writes: “As my voice leaves me, it takes part of my body with it — the sound of its own production.” The voice in your head that you claim as your own is never, physically, the same voice as that which lands in the ear of another, that you also claim as your own, as when you claim on the phone “it’s me.” Jarman-Ivens names this paradoxical, “looped” quality of the voice its “queerness,” traveling between bodies and between language and non- language.

Increasingly, state terrorism marks the airport as a space in which people are alienated on the basis of identity. The anxiety that comes while waiting in line for your body to be scanned epitomizes that alienation. The invasive acts of being scanned, read and misread, are not one-way operations. Security personnel, particularly those whose classed, raced, and gendered bodies straddle multiple identifications and categories of oppression, occupy a tense space: at once agents of the security apparatus and subjects within it.

At the airport I am trying to represent realities in which a speaker’s voice changes and morphs with and through their body and environment. Through collaborations with non-professional actors — with people performing as versions of themselves — I am hoping to communicate the slip and stutter between performance and real life that José Esteban Muñoz might describe as “failure,” or an “active political refusal.” “Failure” is, as I understand Muñoz’s writing and legacy, an opening into another space of relating, a break from performative norms, from a performance of a norm, such as “real life,” or “gender.” Does the performance start when a security worker starts singing? When they become the airport? A worker? When they become a man?  


Featured image still from Asa Mendelsohn’s Instrumental.

Asa Mendelsohn is from New York. He makes performances and media projects that develop through a process of recording, writing, and collaboration. His work combines observational and narrative storytelling practices, often focusing on personal relationships and desire as ways to navigate seemingly inaccessible infrastructures, histories, and systems of power.

 

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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

Everyone’s Going to the Rumba: Trap Latino and the Cuban Internet

In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.

Throughout January, we will explore what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. We’ll read about Latinx beats in Australian clubs, and about femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music. And because no forum on Spanish rap is complete without a mixtape, we’ll close out our forum with a free playlist for our readers. Today we start No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & sound Studies with Michael Levine’s essay on Trap cubano and el paquete semanal.

-Liana M. Silva, forum editor

Trap Latino has grown popular in Cuba over the past few years. Listen to the speakers blaring from a young passerby’s cellphone on Calle G, or scan through the latest digital edition of el paquete semanal (the weekly package), and you are bound to hear the genre’s trademark 808 bass boom in full effect. The style however, is almost entirely absent from state radio, television, and concert venues. To the Cuban state (and many Cubans), the supposed musical and lyrical values expressed in the music are unacceptable for public consumption. Like reggaetón a decade before, the reputation of Trap Latino (and especially the homegrown version, Trap Cubano) intersects with contemporary debates regarding the future of Cuba’s national project. For many of its fans however, the style’s ability to challenge the narratives of the Cuban state is precisely what makes Trap Latino so appealing.

In an article published last year by Granma (Cuba’s official, state-run media source), Havana-based journalist Guillermo Carmona positions Trap Latino artists like Bad Bunny and Bryant Myers as a negative influence on Cuba’s youth, claiming the music sneaks its way into the ears of unsuspecting Cuban youth via the illicit channels of Cuba’s underground internet. With lyrics that celebrate the drug trade and treat women as “slot machines,” coupled with a preponderance of sound effects instead of “music notes,” Carmona considers Trap Latino aggressive, dangerous, and perhaps most perniciously of all, irredeemably foreign.

Towards the end of the article, Carmona focuses on his biggest concern: the performance of Trap Latino in public spaces. Carmona writes of those who play Trap from sound systems that “…they use portable speakers and walk through the streets (dangerously), like a baby driving a car. The combat between the bands that narrate some of these songs gestures towards another battlefield: the public sound space.” For Carmona, this public battlefield is sonically marked by Trap Latino’s encroachment on Cuba’s hallowed musical turf. His complaints highlight the fact that this Afro-Latinx style largely exists in Cuba on one side of what Jennifer Lynn Stoever refers to as the sonic color line, an “interpretive and socially constructed practice conditioned by historically contingent and culturally specific value systems riven with power relations” (14).

In Cuba, historically constructed power relations are responsible for much of the public reception of Afro-Cuban popular music, including rumba, timba, and reggaetón. But Trap Latino’s growing presence on the digital devices of Cuban youth is reshaping the boundaries of Cuba’s sonic color line. While these traperos are generally unable to perform in public (due to strict laws governing uses of Cuba’s public spaces) their music is nonetheless found across Havana’s urban soundscape, thanks to the illicit, but widespread, distribution of the “Cuban Internet.”Historically marginalized Afro-Cuban artists, like Alex Duvall, are today using creative digital strategies to make their music heard in ways that were impossible just a decade ago.

 

The Cuban Internet

To get around the lack of an internet infrastructure either too costly, or too difficult to access, Cubans have developed a network for trading digital media referred to as “el paquete semanal,” contained on terabyte-sized USB memory sticks sold weekly to Cuban residents. These memory sticks contain plenty of content: movies, music, software applications, a “Craiglist”-styled bulletin board of local products for sale, and even an offline social network, among others. The device is traded surreptitiously, presumably without the knowledge of the state.

(There is some question surrounding the degree at which the state is unaware of the paquete trade. Robin Moore, in Music and Revolution, refers to the Cuban government’s propensity to selectively enforce certain illegalities as “lowered frequency”. Ex-president Raul Castro has publicly referred to the device as a ‘necessary evil,” suggesting knowledge, and tacit acceptance, of the device’s circulation.)

By providing a means for artists to circulate products outside of state-sanctioned channels of distribution, el paquete semanal greatly broadens the range of content available to the Cuban public. The importance of the paquete to Cuba’s youth cannot be overstated. According to Havana-based journalist José Raúl Concepción, over 40% of Cuban households consume the paquete on a weekly basis, and over 80% of citizens under the age of 21 consume the paquete daily. A high percentage of the music contained on these devices is not played on the radio or seen in live concerts. For many Cubans, it is only found in the folders contained on these devices. The paquete trade therefore, serves as an invaluable barometer of music trends, especially those of younger people who represent the largest number of consumers of the device.

filesystem

A listing of folders on el paquete semanal from October 30, 2018.

 

Alex Duvall

There is a random-access, mix-tape quality to the paquete that encourages consumers to discover music by loading songs onto their cellphones, shuffling the contents, and pressing play (a practice as common in Cuba as it is in the US). This mode of consumption encourages listeners to discover music to which they otherwise would not be exposed. Reggaetón/Trap Latino artist Alex Duvall takes advantage of this organizing structure to promote his work in a unique manner: Duvall packages his reggaetón music separately from his Trap Latino releases. As a solo act, his reggaetón albums position catchy dembow rhythms alongside lyrics and videos that celebrate love of nation, Cuban women, and Havana’s historic landmarks. As a Trap Latino artist in the band “Trece,” his brand is positioned quite differently. Music videos like Trece’s “Mi Estilo de Vida” for instance, contain many of the markers that journalist Guillermo Carmona criticized in the aforementioned article: a range of women wear the band’s name on bandanas covering their faces, otherwise leaving the rest of their bodies exposed. US currency floats in mid-air, and lyrics address the pleasures of material comforts amid legally questionable ways of “making it.”

Especially as it becomes more and more common for Latinx artists to mix genres freely together in their music (as the catch-all genre format referred to as música urbana shows), it is significant that Alex Duvall prefers to keep these styles separate in his own work. The strategy reveals a musical divide between foreign and domestic elements. Duvall’s reggaetón releases emphasize percussive effects, and the Caribbean-based “dembow riddim” that many Cubans would quickly recognize. The synthesized elements in his Trap Latino work however, belong to an aesthetic foreign to historic representations of Cuban music, representing broader circulations of sound that now extend up to the US. Textures and rhythms originating from Atlanta (along with their attendant political and historical baggage) now share space in the sonic palette of a popular Cuban artist.

 

Going to the Rumba

These cultural circulations complicate narratives coming from the Cuban state that tend to minimize the cultural impact of music originating from the yankui neighbor to the north. These narratives exert powerful political pressure. Because of this, artists are careful when describing their involvement with Trap music. Duvall’s digital strategy allows for a degree of freedom in traveling back and forth across the sonic color line, but permits only so much mobility.

In an interview conducted by MiHabanaTV, Duvall distances himself from Trap Latino’s reputation, defending his project by appealing to the genre’s international popularity, and the need to bring it home to Cuba. But the 2017 song “Hasta La Mañana” documents one of his most concise explanations for his involvement in Trece, in the following lyrics:

“El tiempo va atando billetes a cien
Pero todos va para la rumba
Entonces yo quiero sumarme tambien.”
Time is tying hundred dollar bills together
Everyone is going to the rumba
And I also want to join.

 

He uses “rumba” here as shorthand to refer to the subversive actions that people take in order to succeed in difficult situations. Duvall needs to make money. If everyone else gets rich by going to “the rumba,” why can’t he? The reference is revealing. Rumba marks another Afro-Cuban tradition with a history of marginalized figures engaged in debates over appropriate aural uses of public space. Today, cellphone speakers and boom boxes sound Havana’s parks and streets. Historically, Afro-Cuban rumberos made these spaces audible through live performance, but similar issues of race animate both of these moments.

In the essay “Walking,” sociologist Lisa Maya Knauer explains that it was not uncommon for police to break up a rumba being performed in the streets or someone’s home throughout the twentieth century “on the grounds that it was too disruptive.” (153) Knauer states that rumba music is historically associated with “rowdiness, civil disorder, and unbridled sexuality, while simultaneously celebrated as an icon of national identity”. (131) The quote also reveals a contrast between the public receptions of rumba and Trap Latino. Duvall’s work, and Trap Latino more generally, is similarly fixed amid a complex web of racialized associations. But unlike rumba, refuses to appeal to state-sanctioned ideals of national identity.

Afro-Cuban musicians are often pressured to adopt nationally sanctioned modes of participation in order to acquire official recognition and state funding. The acceptable display of blackness in Cuba’s public spaces, especially while performing for the country’s growing number of tourists, is a process that anthropologist Marc D. Perry calls the “buenavistization” of Cuba in his work Negro Soy Yo. This phrase refers to the success of popular Son heritage group Buena Vista Social Club, and the revival of Afro-Cuban heritage musical styles that this group and its associated film popularized. Unlike Rumba and Son however, Trap Latino is considered irredeemably foreign (given its roots in both the US city of Atlanta and later, Puerto Rico), therefore presenting difficulties in assimilating the genre to dominant models of Cuban national identity. This tension, I believe, is also responsible for it’s success among Cuba’s youth.

Trap Cubano’s growing appeal stems instead from artists’ adoption of a radically counter-cultural positionality often avoided in popular contemporary styles like reggaetón. While it would be unfair to accuse reggaetón as being entirely co-opted (a point musicologist Geoff Baker makes convincingly in “Cuba Rebelión: Underground Music in Havana”), it is certainly true that as reggaetóneros achieve greater success in ever widening circles of international popularity, the amount of scandalized lyrics, eroticized imagery, and the sound of the original dembow riddim itself (with its well documented roots in homophobia and virulent masculinity) has diminished considerably. Trap Latino’s sonic subversions fill this gap. While the genre similarly praises the fulfillment of male, material fantasies, it troubles the narrative that increased access to money solves social, racial, and gender imbalances, while sonically acknowledging the role that the US shares in shaping it’s musical terrain.

This centering of materialism amid representations of marginalized Afro-Cuban artists is foreign to both historic and touristic representations of Cuba, but relevant to a younger generation increasingly confronted with the pressures of encroaching capitalism. Trap Cubano renders visible (and audible) an emerging culture managing life on the less privileged side of the sonic color line. From the speakers blaring from a young passerby’s cellphone on Calle G, to the USB stick plugged in to a blaring sound system, to the rumba where Alex Duvall is headed, Trap Latino broadcasts the concerns of a younger generation challenging what it means to be Cuban in the 21st century, and what that future sounds like.

Involving himself in the music scenes of Brooklyn, N.Y. over the past decade and currently attending The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s musicology programMike Levine utilizes a dual background in academic research and web-based application technologies to support sustainable local music scenes. His research now takes him to Cuba, where he studies the artists and fans circulating music in this vibrant and fast-changing space via Havana’s USB-based, ‘people-powered’ internet (el paquete semanal) amidst challenging political and economic circumstances.

Featured image: “Hotel Cohiba – Havana, Cuba” by Flickr user Chris Goldberg, CC BY-NC 2.0

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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic– Imani Kai Johnson

“I Am Thinking Of Your Voice”: Gender, Audio Compression, and a Sonic Cyberfeminist Theory of Oppression

I developed the text I recite in this post as the theoretical framework for an article I’m working on about audio compression. As I was working on the article, I wondered about the role of gender and race in the research on audio compression. Specifically, I was reminded of the central role Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” played into research that led to the mp3. Karl-Heinz Brandenburg used the song to test the compression method he was developing for mp3s because it sounded “warm.” Sure, the track is very intimate and Vega’s voice is soft and vulnerable. But to what extent is its “warmth” the effect of a man’s perception of Vega addressing him as either/both an intimate partner or caregiver? Is its so-called warmth dependent upon the extent to which Vega’s voice performs idealized white hetero femininity, a role from which patriarchy definitely expects warmth (intimacy, care work) but can’t be bothered to hear anything beyond or other than that from (white) women?

“Suzanne Vega 13. Inselleuchten 02” by Wikimedia Commons user Olaf Tausch under GFDL license (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

In other words, I’m wondering about what ways our compression practices are shaped by white supremacist, patriarchal listening ears. Before anyone even runs an audio signal through a compressor, how do patriarchal gender systems already themselves act as a kind of epistemological and sensory compression that separates out essential from inessential signal, such that we let women’s warm, caring voices through while also demanding they discipline themselves into compressing their anger and rage away?

The literature does address the role of sexism and ableism in the shaping of audio technologies, but this critique is most commonly framed in conventionally liberal terms that understand oppression as a matter of researcher bias that excludes and censors minority voices. For example, the literature addresses the way “cultural differences like gender, age, race, class, nationality, and language” are overlooked by researchers (Jonathan Sterne), offers cursory nods to the biases and preferences of white cis men scientists (Ryan Maguire), or claims that “the principles of efficiency and universality central to the history of signal processing also worked to censure atypical voices and minor modes of communication” (Mara Mills). Though such analyses are absolutely necessary components of sonic cyberfeminist practice, they are not sufficient.

“Untitled” by Flickr user Charlotte Cooper, CC-BY-2.0

We also need to consider the ways frequencies get parsed into the structural positions that masculinity and femininity occupy in Western patriarchal gender systems. Patriarchy doesn’t just influence researchers, their preferences, their choices, and their judgments. How is the break between essential and inessential signal mapped onto the gendered break between what Beauvoir calls “Absolute” and “Other,” masculine and feminine? Patriarchy is not just a relation among people; it is also a relation among sounds. I don’t think this is inconsistent with the positions I cited earlier in this paragraph; rather, I am pursuing the concerns that motivate those positions a bit more emphatically. And this is perhaps because our objects of analysis are slightly different: I’m a political philosopher interested in political structures that shape epistemologies and ontologies—such as the patriarchal gender system organized by masculine absolute/feminine other—whereas most of the scholars I cited earlier have a more STS- and media-studies-approach that is interested in material culture.

As a way to address these questions, I made a short critical karaoke-style sound piece where I read a shortened version of the text below over the original version of “Tom’s Diner” from Vega’s album Solitude Standing (which, for what it’s worth, I first owned on cassette, not digitally). I recorded my voice reciting a condensed version of the framework I develop for a sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression over a copy of the original, a cappella version of “Tom’s Diner.” If I were in philosopher mode, I would theorize the full implications of this aesthetic choice, but I’m offering this as a sound art piece, the material and sensory dimensions of which provide y’all the opportunity to think through those implications yourselves.

[Text from audio]

Perceptual coding and perceptual technics create breaks in the audio spectrum in the same way that neoliberalism and biopolitics create breaks in the spectrum of humanity. Perceptual coding refers to “those forms of audio coding that use a mathematical model of human hearing to actively remove sound in the audible part of the spectrum under the assumption that it will not be heard” (loc 547). Neoliberalism and biopolitics use a mathematical model of human life to actively remove people from eligibility for moral and political personhood on the assumption that they will not be missed. They each use the same basic set of techniques: a normalized model of hearing, the market, or life defines the parameters of what should be included and what should be disposed of, in order to maximize the accumulation of private property/personhood.

These parameters are not objective but grounded in what Jennifer Lynne Stoever calls a “listening ear”: “a socially constructed ideological system producing but also regulating cultural ideas about sound” (13). Perceptual coding uses white supremacist, capitalist presumptions about the limits of humanity to mark a break in what counts as sound and what counts as noise…such as presumptions about feminine voices like Suzanne Vega’s.

Perceptual coding subjects audio frequencies to the same techniques of government and management that neoliberalism and biopolitics subject people to. For this reason, it can serve as a specifically sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression.

It shows us not just how oppression works under neoliberalism and biopolitics, but also its motivations and effects. The point is to increase the efficient accumulation of personhood as property by white supremacist capitalist patriarchal institutions. Privilege is the receipt of social investment and the ability to build on it by access to circulation. Oppression is the denial of this investment and access to circulation. For example, mass incarceration takes people of color out of circulation and subjects them to carceral logics…because this is the way such populations are most profitable for neoliberal and biopolitical white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Featured image: “Solo show: Order and Progress at Fabio Paris Art Gallery (Brescia, 15 January 2011)” by Flickr user Roͬͬ͠͠͡͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠sͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠aͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠ Menkman, CC BY-NC 2.0

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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Mr. and Mrs. Talking Machine: The Euphonia, the Phonograph, and the Gendering of Nineteenth Century Mechanical Speech

In the early 1870s a talking machine, contrived by the aptly-named Joseph Faber appeared before audiences in the United States.  Dubbed the “euphonia” by its inventor, it did not merely record the spoken word and then reproduce it, but actually synthesized speech mechanically. It featured a fantastically complex pneumatic system in which air was pushed by a bellows through a replica of the human speech apparatus, which included a mouth cavity, tongue, palate, jaw and cheeks. To control the machine’s articulation, all of these components were hooked up to a keyboard with seventeen keys— sixteen for various phonemes and one to control the Euphonia’s artificial glottis. Interestingly, the machine’s handler had taken one more step in readying it for the stage, affixing to its front a mannequin. Its audiences in the 1870s found themselves in front of a machine disguised to look like a white European woman.

Unidentified image of Joseph Faber’s Euphonia, public domain. c. 1870

By the end of the decade, however, audiences in the United States and beyond crowded into auditoriums, churches and clubhouses to hear another kind of “talking machine” altogether. In late 1877 Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, a device capable of capturing the spoken words of subjects and then reproducing them at a later time. The next year the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company sent dozens of exhibitors out from their headquarters in New York to edify and amuse audiences with the new invention. Like Faber before them, the company and its exhibitors anthropomorphized their talking machines, and, while never giving their phonographs hair, clothing or faces, they did forge a remarkably concrete and unanimous understanding of “who” the phonograph was. It was “Mr. Phonograph.

Why had the Euphonia become female and the phonograph male? In this post, I peel apart some of the entanglements of gender and speech that operated in the Faber Euphonia and the phonograph, paying particular attention to the technological and material circumstances of those entanglements. What I argue is that the materiality of these technologies must itself be taken into account in deciphering the gendered logics brought to bear on the problem of mechanical speech. Put another way, when Faber and Edison mechanically configured their talking machines, they also engineered their uses and their apparent relationships with users.  By prescribing the types of relationships the machine would enact with users, they constructed its “ideal” gender in ways that also drew on and reinforced existing assumptions about race and class.

Of course, users could and did adapt talking machines to their own ends. They tinkered with its construction or simply disregarded manufacturers’ prescriptions. The physical design of talking machines as well as the weight of social-sanction threw up non-negligible obstacles to subversive tinkerers and imaginers.

Born in Freiburg, Germany around 1800, Joseph Faber worked as an astronomer at the Vienna Observatory until an infection damaged his eyesight. Forced to find other work, he settled on the unlikely occupation of “tinkerer” and sometime in the 1820s began his quest for perfected mechanical speech. The work was long and arduous, but by no later than 1843 Faber was exhibiting his talking machine on the continent. In 1844 he left Europe to exhibit it in the United States, but in 1846 headed back across the Atlantic for a run at London’s Egyptian Hall.

That Faber conceived of his invention in gendered terms from the outset is reflected in his name for it—“Euphonia”—a designation meaning “pleasant sounding” and whose Latin suffix conspicuously signals a female identity. Interestingly, however, the inventor had not originally designed the machine to look like a woman but, rather, as an exoticized male “Turk.”

8:8:1846

“The Euphonia,” August 8, 1846, Illustrated London News, 96.

A writer for Chambers Edinburgh Journal characterized the mannequin’s original appearance in September of 1846:

The half figure of a man, the size known to artists as kit kat, dressed in Turkish costume, is seen resting, upon the side of a table, surrounded by crimson drapery, with its arms crossed upon its bosom. The body of the figure is dressed in blue merino, its head is surmounted by a Turkish cap, and the lower part of the face is covered with a dense flowing beard, which hangs down so as to conceal some portion of the mechanism contained in the throat.

What to make of Faber’s decision to present his machine as a “Turk?” One answer, though an unsatisfying one is “convention.” One of the most famous automata in history had been the chess-playing Turk constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the eighteenth century. A close student of von Kempelen’s work on talking machines, Faber would almost certainly have been aware of the precedent. In presenting their machines as “Turks,” however, both Faber and Von Kempelen likely sought to harness particular racialized tropes to generate public interest in their machines. Mystery. Magic. Exoticism. Europeans had long attributed these qualities to the lands and peoples of the Near East and it so happened that these racist representations were also highly appealing qualities in a staged spectacle—particularly ones that purported to push the boundaries of science and engineering.

Mysteriousness, however, constituted only one part of a much larger complex of racialized ideas.  As Edward Said famously argued in Orientalism Westerners have generally mobilized representations of “the East” in the service of a very specific political-cultural project of self- and other-definition—one in which the exoticized orient invariably absorbs the undesirable second half of a litany of binaries: civilization/barbarism, modernity/backwardness, humanitarianism/cruelty, rationality/irrationality. Salient for present purposes, however is the west’s self-understanding as masculine, in contradistinction to—in Said’s words—the East’s “feminine penetrability, its supine malleability.”

One possible reading of the Faber machine and its mannequin “Turk,” then, would position it as an ersatz woman. A depiction of the Euphonia and its creator, which appeared in the August 8, 1846  Illustrated London News would appear to lend credence to this reading. In it, the Turk, though bearded, features stereotypically “feminine” traits, including soft facial features, smooth complexion and full lips. Similarly, his billowing blouse and turban lend to the Turk a decidedly “un-masculine” air from the standpoint of Victorian sartorial norms. The effect is heightened by the stereotypically “male” depiction of Faber himself in the same illustration. He sits at the Euphonia’s controls, eyes cast down in rapt attention to his task. His brow is wrinkled and his cheeks appear to be covered in stubble. He appears in shirt and jacket—the uniform of the respectable middle-class white European man.

Importantly, the Euphonia’s speech acts did not take place as part of a conversation, but might have been compared to another kind of vocalization altogether. Faber’s manipulation of the Euphonia entailed a strenuous set of activities behind the automaton (though, in truth, off to one side.) Its keyboard kept both of the inventor’s hands occupied at the machine’s “back,” while its foot-operated bellows had to steadily be pumped to produce airflow. Though requiring some imagination, one could imagine Faber and his creation having sex. At least one observer, it seems, did. In an article originally printed in the New York Paper, the author recounted how he “suggested to Mr. F[aber] that the costume and figure had better have been female.” This course of action offered practical mechanical-semiotic advantages “as the bustle would have given a well-placed and ample concealment for all the machinery now disenchantingly placed outside.” To the foregoing the writer added a clause: “—the performer sitting down naturally behind and playing her like a piano.”

Unidentified image of Faber’s Euphonia, public domain. c. 1870. The Euphonia was apparently sometimes exhibited with only the mannequin’s face in place, its body having been dispensed with.

Around 1870 the Euphonia was recast as a woman.  By this time Herr Faber had been dead several years and his talking machine had passed on to a relative, also called Joseph, who outsourced the staged operation of the machine to his wife—Maria Faber. The transition from a male mannequin to a female mannequin (as well as the transition from a male operator to a female operator) throws into relief certain wrinkles in the gendered story of the Euphonia. Given that the Euphonia’s vocalizations could be read through the lens of sexualized domination, why had Faber himself not designed the mannequin as a woman in the first place? There are no pat answers. Perhaps the older, bookish, inventor believed the Turk could serve as an object of Western scientific domination without eliciting embarrassing and prurient commentary. Clearly, he underestimated the degree to which the idea of technological mastery already contained sexual overtones.

Little can be said about Joseph Faber’s life and work beyond 1846 though an entry for the inventor in the Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Österreich claimed that he took his life about 1850. Whatever the truth of Herr Faber’s fate, the Euphonia itself disappeared from public life around this same time and did not resurface for nearly two-and-a-half decades.

On the other hand, the idea of a female-presenting Euphonia, suggested by the New York Paper contributor in 1845, came to fruition as the machine was handed over to a female operator. If audiences imagined the spectacle of Euphonia-operation as a kind of erotic coupling, this new pairing would have been as troubling in its own way as Faber’s relationship to his Turk. What explains, then, the impulse to transition the Euphonia from androgyne to woman? Again, there are no pat answers.  One solution to the enigma lies in the counter-factual: Whatever discomfiting sexual possibilities were broached in the Victorian mind by a woman’s mastery over a female automaton would have been greatly amplified by a woman’s mastery over a male one.

H.H.H. von Ograph “The Song of Mr. Phonograph” (New York: G Shirmer, 1878).

In these early exhibitions, the phonograph became “Mr. Phonograph.”  In Chicago, for example, an exhibitor exclaimed “Halloa! Halloa!” into the apparatus before asking “Mr. Phonograph are you there?” “This salutation,” perspicaciously noted an attending Daily Tribune reporter “might have been addressed with great propriety to the ghosts at a spiritual seance…” In San Francisco, an exhibitor opened his demonstration by recording the message “Good morning, Mr. Phonograph.” Taking the bait, a Chronicle reporter described the subsequent playback: “‘Good morning, Mr. Phonograph,’ yelled Mr. Phonograph.”

In Atlanta, the phonograph was summoned “Mr. Phonograph, will you talk?” Mr. Phonograph obliged [“Wonder Agape!,” The Phonograph Puzzling Atlanta’s Citizens.” The Daily Constitution. June 22, 1878, 4]. At some point in 1878 the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company commissioned the printing of a piece of promotional sheet music “The Song of Mr. Phonograph.” The cover art for the song sheet featured a bizarrely anthropomorphized phonograph. The machine’s iron cylinder has been transformed into a head with eyes, while the mouthpiece and recording stylus have migrated outward and are grasped by two human hands. Mr. Phonograph’s attire, however, leaves no doubt as to his gender: He wears a collared shirt, vest, and jacket with long tails above; and stirrupped pants and dress boots below.

[Animal noises–cat, chicken, rooster, cow bird, followed by announcement by unidentified male voice, From UCSB Cylinder Archive]. Mr. Phonograph appealed not only to the professional exhibitors of the 1870s but to other members of the American public as well. One unnamed phonograph enthusiast recorded himself sometime before 1928 imitating the sounds of cats, hens, roosters and crows. Before signing off, he had his own conversation with “Mr. Phonograph.”

To understand the impulse to masculinize the phonograph, one must keep in mind the technology’s concrete mechanical capabilities. Unlike the Euphonia, the phonograph did not have a voice of its own, but could only repeat what was said to it. The men who exhibited the phonograph to a curious public were not able (like the Fabers before them) to sit in detached silence and manually prod their talking machines into talking. They were forced to speak to and with the phonograph. The machine faithfully addressed its handler with just as much (or as little) manly respect as that shown it, and the entire operation suggested to contemporaries the give-and-take of a conversation between equals. Not surprisingly, the phonograph became a man and a properly respectable one at that. Finally, the all-male contingent of exhibitors sent across the United States by the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 invariably imparted to their phonographs their own male voices as they put the machine through its paces on stage. This, in itself, encouraged attribution of masculinity to the device.

The Euphonia and the phonograph both “talked.” The phonograph did so in a way mechanically-approximating the idealized bourgeois exchange of ideas and therefore “had” to be male. The Euphonia, on the other hand, spoke only as a function of its physical domination by its handler who wrung words from the instrument as if by torture. The Euphonia, then, “had” to be female.

The talking machines of the late nineteenth century as well as the media technologies that succeeded them emerged from a particular white, male, western and middle class culture.While changing in profound ways since the Victorian period, this culture has remained committed to the values of scientific mastery of nature; racial and gender hierarchies; and, especially, economic accumulation. But because the physical apparatus of talking machines has evolved so dramatically during this same period, it has been necessary to periodically renovate the ontology of mechanical speech in order to make it “safe” for the core values of the culture.

A fuller accounting of the politics of sound reproduction is possible but it depends on a more dynamic rendering of the interplay between practices, technologies and sonic understandings. It requires not only identifying speakers and listeners, but also placing them within the broader networks of people, things and ideas that impart to them moral content. It means attending—no less so than to texts and other representations—to the stories machines themselves tell when they enact the labor of speaking. We should listen to talking machines talking. But we should watch them as well.

Featured Image: from William C. Crum, ”Illustrated History of Wild Animals and Other Curiosities Contained in P.T. Barnum’s Great Travelling World’s Fair….” (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1874) 73. This image suggests that the later exhibitors of the Euphonia may have occasionally deviated from the gendered norms established by Joseph Faber, Sr. In image 4, a man—perhaps Joseph, Jr.— operates the Euphonia in its female form.

J. Martin Vest holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in American History from the University of Michigan. His research interests range across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and are heavily influenced by the eclecticism and curiosity of working class storytelling. Past projects have explored Southside Virginia’s plank roads; the trope of insanity in American popular music; slavs in the American South; radical individualist “egoism;” twentieth century anarchists and modern “enchantment.” His dissertation, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1870-1930,” charts the peculiar evolution of modern ideas about recorded sound, paying particular attention to the role of capitalism and mechanical technology in shaping the things said and believed about the stuff “in the grooves.”


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