Each of the essays in our “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
Read all the previous posts here, and, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
As humans, we engage all of our senses in every undertaking, whether or not we consciously perceive our sensory interactions. For instance, when we consume a gourmet meal, we don’t simply taste the food—we also see it, smell it, and feel it. We might also hear it as it is being prepared and/or consumed, and the meal’s pleasure can be enhanced by conversation. Overall, our experiences are enriched (or worsened) through our multisensory engagement. Similarly, reading involves multimodal feedback. While we might think of it as solely a visual experience, both auditory and tactile interactions occur within the process. As The Handbook of Multisensory Processes (518) tells us, audiotactile (sound+touch) and visuotactile (sight+touch) interactions are of great functional importance as they link remote senses to the body.
Thus, our interactions with everyday objects are multisensory, even if we do not consciously realize that fact. Arguably, although the sense of hearing is the first to develop in the womb, it is often the sense we overlook in solitary pursuits such as reading. Nevertheless, every human action occurs within a soundscape, much like they take place within a landscape. A soundscape is “an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by the individual, or by a society. It thus depends on the relationship between the individual and any such environment” (Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, 1978). Like landscapes, soundscapes must be considered in context and in relation to multisensory experience.
In particular, audio-visual interactions have been shown to have an effect on soundscape perception. Soundscape design elements reflect this concern. For example, a plan might include adding fountains, both as a noise control element and as a deliberate introduction of a soothing sonic feature. At the same time, fountains are a managed version of a natural element (water) that incorporate certain visual effects (e.g. reflective space and sparkling sunlight) creating textured and appealing landscapes. How the element is introduced into the environment has an effect on the perception (and appreciation) of the space. Furthermore, the touch of cool, clean water can supplement the overall impression, heightening the soothing effect initiated by the tinkling sound of the moving water. This is an audiotactile experience; that is, sounds connected with the sense of touch, an ecological system that combines the haptic and the aural.
Although the field of audiotactile integration has been somewhat dormant in the biological sciences since Paul von Schiller suggested back in 1932 that sounds, especially patterned noises, could affect tactile perception of roughness, recently some researchers have conducted experiments that test audiotactile qualities of materials. Several have suggested that these results might be synthetic—that is, the impact the sounds have modulate the haptic perception of the material being touched. For the most part, there seems to be connections between the perceptions of the sounds involved in touch and the perceptions of the stiffness of material. However, one study demonstrates that synchronized movements and sounds can affect the perception of the subject’s own skin. Suffice it to say, then, that sounds and texture and material quality are linked, both physically and perceptively.
Although humans rarely display deliberate awareness of audiotactile interaction, both auditory and haptic stimulation share similar temporal and psychological patterns in human consciousness. This connection would have perhaps been even more true in the Middle Ages than it is now, since the context of parchment and manuscript production and consumption was more immediately personal than paper production and reading is today.
To understand both the historicizing of the senses and the impact of shifting modes of literacy, it is possible to recreate some of the former immediacy of parchment production. During the summer of 2015, I participated in a National Endowments for the Humanities Seminar on Manuscript Materiality. This occasion provided me with the opportunity to make a manuscript page replica, starting from the “ground up” with the creation of parchment. We also studied theory, page layout, and other material circumstances, allowing us to really think about how people—both medieval and modern—engage with manuscripts using their senses. Elsewhere I have discussed the sense of touch. Here, I want to extend that discussion to include the sense of hearing; that is, I will focus on the sounds of parchment-making and parchment-reading, as activated through touching.
Parchment (Latin pergamenum) is the general term used for an animal hide that has been prepared for writing. Vellum (Latin vitulinum) more specifically refers to prepared calfskin. Parchment is made through an extended process of skinning, cleaning (de-fleshing and de-hairing), stretching, and scraping. It is stretched and scraped on special frames with adjustable screw pegs. The parchment maker scrapes the skin to the desired thickness with a curved tool, adjusting the pegs as the skin dries and changes texture. Often the skin is rewetted, scraped, and stretched numerous times in order to achieve the desired thickness. Sometimes a pumice stone finish is used at the end to create a surface porous enough to accept and retain ink. This is a vastly different process than tanning, which involves chemical alteration of the skins.
In the seminar, our parchment master was Jesse Meyer of Pergamena. He provided tools, guidance, and expertise as we participants stumbled through the process. Parchment making is hard, smelly work. My hands ached after only a few go-rounds with the tools, which included a pumice-like concoction of over-baked bread mixed with ground glass, knives that had been reshaped and re-handled, and Jesse’s special skin-refiner tool discussed below. Jesse told us many eye-opening things over the days of parchment making; however, possibly one of the most intriguing was how parchment masters could make a parchment “sing,” and how they, through this sound, knew whether or not the skin had reached its full potential.
So when Jesse demonstrated the various techniques on his sample skin, I listened carefully to the sounds he made by scraping as well as watching what he did with his hands. As he scraped away, the parchment did indeed sing. You can hear it yourself:
Audio Clip of Jesse’s “Parchment Singing”
This aspect of parchment making fascinated me. After our seminar was done, I got back in touch with Jesse to talk further about the sounds of parchment making. He was more than forthcoming about his experiences. When Jesse first read about medieval parchment making, he ran across several mentions of the “ringing” sound that parchment masters produced when shaving their skins. He, like many of us, had never considered that aspect before. So he started paying attention to the different sounds he made as he used various tools on the skins. Right now, he uses a handmade tool that consists of a saw blade shaved to his specificity with a handmade handle on it. Each of us got a chance to hold it and try it on our own skin. It was an unwieldy tool for the uninitiated, and my parchment did not “sing” like Jesse’s did.
Jesse is an expert, but even he says he cannot quite tell the nuances among the different types of skins by sound alone, although he notes that there are similarities among the types. Perhaps that skill could be developed over years of working solely with parchment, as a master in the Middle Ages would have. What Jesse has shared, however, is valuable: thicker skins are not as flexible, but they produce a “better,” that is clearer, sound.
Thickness of parchment can be due to a number of factors including preparation technique, but also the age and type of animal. Older animals yield thicker skins. Thicker skins are usually smoother and yield a cleaner sound. Of course if the animal has been injured or diseased, the skin may not be smooth. The firmer and tighter a skin is, the denser it is, and the easier it is to shave as well. In fact, Jesse says that denser skins can also make full, warm, “drum-like” sounds. Even more intriguingly, when I asked Jesse if he had ever noticed a difference between the hair side and the flesh side of skins, he said yes: the hair side of parchment sounds better to him because it is cleaner once the hair has been removed. The flesh side often retains fibrous bits even after many scrapings, and produces a more diffuse sound. When this side is scraped, it leaves behind a “fuzzy” residue until it has seen many passes with the scraper.
The relative dryness and “freshness” of the skin can also alter the clarity of the “ringing.” For example, compare the sound from the freshly prepared goatskin last summer to the sound from scraping a drier goatskin in Jesse’s workshop:
Repeat of first audio clip of Jesse’s “parchment singing”
Comparison clip of Jesse making a drier parchment sing
Both of these clips were produced from goatskins, and both were produced by Jesse who also used the same tool on each. While the sound is very similar, and both ring true, the drier skin produces a clearer, purer sound.
Plainly, then, the sounds of parchment making are vital to quality production. Most medieval manuscripts are made of three types of animal skins: sheep, goat, and calf. The prevalence of each animal is geographically dependent (sheepskin is more common in England, calfskin in France, and goatskin in Italy), although of course manuscripts traveled, and wealthy patrons commissioned materials they preferred. (see “DNA May Reveal Origins of Medieval Manuscripts” from Livescience)
Age, breed, size, and animal health can all contribute to the audiotactile qualities of a skin. However, there are some general guidelines. Sheepskins, for instance, are stretchier than goat skins, so their “ringing” can be muffled. Goatskins, which are thinner and stiffer, make a higher pitched “ring.” Calfskins are larger and easier than the others to get clean, and thus often make the cleanest “ring” and can do so more quickly than the others.
The type of skin is not the only factor in play. A rough blade would have produced a rough sound; conversely, an even, sharp blade would have produce the cleanest sound. The tautness of the skin in the frame can also affect pitch and tone, as can its dryness, its fatty content, and the age of the animal. As noted in a recent study, “The density of collagen fibrils in calf and goat parchment, compared with a more open weave and higher fat content in sheep parchment, favors the former two species [for producing the finest parchment]” (15070). Nevertheless, master parchment makers should have been able to manipulate any skin to produce superior results. As long as the corium (the dermis layer of skin containing all the connective tissues, including collagen, elastic fibers, hair follicles, sebaceous glands, blood vessels, and a number of other components) is sufficiently ground down, the parchment produced can be made very fine. And as the corium wears away, the sound of the scraping grows ever cleaner and clearer, just as the feel of the skin grows ever smoother. Overall, the tone gets higher as the skin gets thinner, and as long as the scrape is even, the tone should remain pure.
Here’s a video of Jesse scraping a calfskin. Compare this clear “ringing” to the goatskin scrapings:
That’s all well and good for production of manuscripts, but texts are made for consumption. Earlier, I mentioned my having considered the qualities of hapacity and manuscripts involving Christ’s side wound in another blog post. One of the manuscripts I discussed, London, British Library, MS Egerton 1821, was clearly designed to be touched. This unusual manuscript contains a number of woodcuts that reflect devotion to the wounds of Christ, but, more strikingly, opens with three pages painted black, covered in drops of paint meant to emulate Christ’s flowing blood.
After a series of woodcuts, seven more pages appear. These are painted red with darker red paint splatters representing drops of blood. Although these pages do not contain specific images, they are meant to evoke interactive piety. The reader is invited to touch Christ’s wounds while praying or meditating. The worn appearance of Folio 2r demonstrates just how frequently the pages were touched and rubbed.
How did those pages feel to a medieval reader? Did they feel rough or smooth? Did the reader feel a frisson of excitement? Animal skin, such as parchment, carried with it the essence of the life of the animal, thus imbuing the images painted onto it with some semblance of life force, such as suggested by Thomas Aquinas in his Question 8 (Summa Theologica) regarding the potential for divinity placed within material objects. To a certain extent, then, touching an image of Christ was akin to touching a proxy of his body, allowing a powerful and individual haptic experience of faith. But what about the sounds made when these images became the subject of interaction? Was the medieval reader aware of touching the page, touching Christ’s wounds, even more because he or she would hear the interaction?
I took it upon myself to rub the worn folio in Egerton 1821. I did so reverently, if not because I felt a mystical connection to Christ, but because I felt awed at being able to reproduce a medieval experience (albeit 500 years later). There was a distinct sound, which you can hear in this clip:
Clip of the author rubbing the worn folio in Egerton 1821
I was surprised at the resultant sound. The worn part of the page looked soft, and the paint splatters looked cracked. Instead, to my surprise, the worn portions felt rougher than the cracked paint. Like the modern studies demonstrated, my audiotactile perceptions were altered initially by what I saw, but then by what I heard. At first, I touched hesitantly, but when the sounds produced became rhythmic, my hands felt smoother and the noise sounded more even. If I were repeatedly rubbing the same spot, in the same manner, producing the same sounds—much as a medieval reader might have done—the combined sensations would likely have produced a soporific and meditative state. That is, combining touch, particularly of a textured surface, with measured reading might have resulted in the ideal perceptive state for experiencing an immersive religious experience.
If, as numerous studies have demonstrated, vibrotactile stimuli can facilitate hearing, both for those with and without hearing impairments, then the sounds hand and fingers make when exploring a surface must contribute to an individual’s haptic perception and vice versa. How, then, would this connect on the behavioral or emotional level? Researchers have been exploring the reciprocal interactions of the auditory, tactile, and visual (sometimes referred to as cross-modal effects), often concentrating on sensory thresholds, information processing performance, and spatial navigation; however, only recently are studies beginning to investigate the emotional and physical benefits of such exchanges. For instance, one such study suggests auditory-tactile stimulation as a means to increase health and well-being.
Thus, a combination of touch felt by a reader with sound heard by a reader at the same time might influence the reader’s state of mind in a positive way, resulting in a positive effect on the body as well. A desired state can be reached more quickly through an audiotactile combination, resulting in a sensory illusion (perceiving something not physically extant but mentally present)—a powerful manner of evoking emotion. Similarly, the positive physical effects include relaxation, stress relief, and sleep enhancement. Again, this seemingly suggests that multisensory integration, especially the combination of touch and sound, might have produced a mental state in the (medieval) reader that made them particularly receptive to spiritual experience.
I would suggest, then, that as medieval scholars, we should examine how audiotactile events are processed during dynamic contact between hands and material. Since different sensory modalities are integrated in the human brain to form our perceptions as a whole, including spatial and temporal relationships, it is important that we consider multisensory interactions that code the location of external events relative to our own bodies. Thus, to think through the process of making, touching, and hearing medieval parchment opens up a lot of possibilities for the study of medieval materiality—indeed for materiality in general as a field. The importance of the whole body sensory experience, including hearing, in reading is something we need to continue to imagine, to reimagine, to recreate, and to explore.
Michelle M. Sauer is a professor at the University of North Dakota in the English Department. She recently released her latest book, titled Gender in Medieval Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015).
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Mouthing the Passion: Richard Rolle’s Soundscapes–Christopher Roman
EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?
Next week Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us last week about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Today, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. As she reflects on this nun’s job, she senses her notion of listening (especially in the context of the digital) change.
Sit down, fade into the background, and listen closely. Mother Superior will want all the details.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor
Who is she?
At the beginning of my doctoral research on listening, while I looked in French dictionaries for the word “écoute” I came upon, almost systematically, the expression “soeur écoute.” For example, this dictionary says “soeur écoute” is a nun who, in a monastery, accompanies in the parlor room another nun who gets visited.
This is how I met this cloistered nun called “la soeur écoute” (literally, “the sister listening”, or “sister listen”, if a literal translation has any sense here). The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions. She is a listener, just as you would say, “I’m a librarian”. However I prefer to say “she is listener”, without the “a”, even if it is not proper English. In French, elle est écoute, and believe me, this resonates amazingly. To me, the “soeur écoute” is a fascinating woman because her activity has ceased to exist in monasteries, allowing me to imagine her experience, behavior, life and occupation as a cloistered nun.
Here she is at work. A visitor is knocking on the monastery’s door — can you hear it? The “soeur écoute” welcomes the visitor and leads him/her through the place until they reach the parlor. The room is divided in two spaces by a metal or wooden grille, the sacred one and the secular one. The “soeur écoute” has the visitor sitting in front of the grille, on the secular side of the room. On the other side, the nun who is being visited is already sitting, waiting for the “soeur écoute” to pull aside the curtain that hides the grille. The “soeur écoute” then sits next to the visited nun, slightly in the background. During the conversation, she neither speaks nor moves nor takes any notes. She just listens. When the session is finished, she closes the curtain and leads the visitor to the exit. Later, she promptly reports what she heard to the mother abbess.
The word “écoute” has three moments in its evolution over time (of course with some overlapping). In order: someone, somewhere, something. “Someone” refers to the 12th century (“écoute,” as a person, is attested in France at the beginning of this century), and “somewhere” to the 15th (meaning the place from where you listen). Then, listening considered as “something” (the “thing” you must have to be able to hear attentively) goes back the 19th. In our common comprehension of what listening is, we are now entirely in the “something” part, with no overlapping at all. For my research, the minute I started to look at my “object” as a “person,” my thinking shifted. The “soeur écoute” rung a bell: we are in the “something” timeframe of the notion of listening, and this could blind us in our comprehension of what listening in 2016 really is.
Listening Behind Bars
Firstly, the “soeur écoute” is also called, in some sources, “auscultatrice.” For example, I found a mention (with a missing “t”) of such nuns in a primary source of 1705 concerning the Ursulines de la Congrégration de Paris. The document tells neither how the “auscultatrice” should behave, nor the technical rules to apply, such as the distance between the grille and the visited nun, or the distance between the “auscultatrice” and the visited nun. But it does indicate how the visited nun should behave with her. In the section called “De la manière dont les Religieuses se doivent comporter au Parloir” (How nuns must behave in the parlor), we read:
“They will be humble and reserved in their behavior. They will avoid inappropriate gestures, as well as the distraction of sight, bursts of laughing, speaking loudly or impetuously, although they always are expected to speak in an intelligible way, so that the auscultatrice can hear them” (my translation).
The term “auscultatrice” is reminiscent of the very roots of the word “écoute,” the Latin auscultare, a combination of “(…)auris, a word that gives the first part of the verb auscultare,” and “a tension, an intention and an attention, which the second part of the term marks’, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains.
In the case of the Ursulines, it is a paradox, as the word “écoute” had been used since the 12th century, and the expression “soeur écoute” commonly used since the end of the Middle Ages. I suspect a marketing reason here: “auscultatrice” sounds much more strict and in-depth than “soeur écoute,” providing the idea of a pure and original listening, if not conservative.
Second, the “soeur écoute” is part-time. A primary source dating of 1628, in a 1876 book, mentions 25 nuns interviewed about their occupations inside the Sainte-Praxède monastery. Seven among them claim to be or to have been “auscultatrice” (p. 52–54, 193, 198, 212, 234). All of them double it up with another job, such as nurse or organist. Some of them also claim being “auscultatrice de la porte” (auscultatrice of the door) or “auscultatrice du parloir” (auscultatrice in the parlor). The grille, the door and her body (when she strides along the monastery), are her work instruments, her listening prostheses.
Third, the “soeur écoute” appears to have amazing skills. In the Dictionnaire françois, by Pierre Richelet (1680), she is called “tierce”, meaning she is the third element in the triangle of the setting in the parlor, hence, a mediation :
Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 448
Also, the plural “ÉCOUTES“ (written in capital, as to demonstrate a precedence on the singular form) : “this word is used to designate people placed to listen and to discover what is happening” (my translation).
Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 265
She indeed has an ability to discover what is happening, by watching, observing, monitoring, keeping an eye, but also by aggregating the data she is collecting.
The parlor in motion
As I was writing a few pages devoted to the “soeur écoute” for my dissertation, I stumbled upon an oral history documentary,funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, called Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). As Abbie Reese describes on her website, it is “a collaborative documentary film — a portrait made with and about a young woman transitioning into a cloistered religious community that follows an ancient rule.” Reese explains:
The severity of their lives is striking. During the four visits permitted each year, the nuns and their loved ones are separated by a metal grille and are not supposed to reach through the bars to touch one another.
Today, this order, as others, uses “extern sisters” to provide the link with the outside world.
Intrigued by this grille, reminiscence of the “soeur écoute,” I watched the 8-minute demo and was stricken by two moments. The first one, at 2:20, shows Abbie Reese in the parlor, with a computer, in front of the metal grille. Behind it, one of the cloistered nuns reaches the computer through the bars in order to plug in a cable. At 07:55, this time from the point of view of the Poor Clare nuns, we see the parlor with the grille covered by a green curtain. A nun walks in, pulls aside the curtain. Then, at 08:02, from the secular side again, a nun closes the curtain while saying : “you can turn it off!”.
What did we just witness? A cloistered contemplative nun reached through a metal grille to transfer some video files into a computer. It is here, around this gesture, that I see digital humanities coming into the picture along with listening. Of course I’m not building a case on the cable itself, or on the video files. It is the gesture more than anything else that draws my attention: the exact moment where the nun reaches the computer through the bars.
A surveilled sequence of events
As it comes from the outside world, by definition a visit to the monastery disturbs the extremely scheduled sequence of events and rules giving rythm to the monastery’s life. From this point of view, the “soeur écoute” is the only one, in the enclosure of the monastery, in power of keeping watch (“épier”) on what is around her. In All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (English edition to be released in December 2016), Peter Szendy evokes the “écoute” (as a person) as the one whose job is to practice an auditive surveillance (“celui ou celle qui pratique la surveillance auditive”). Yet here, with this listening nun, we are reaching a listening that is much more than aural.
What does she do as a job? Surveillance? Espionage? I would rather say that her listening is a lookout (“affût”), a sentinel (“sentinelle”) as well as a watch (“guet”) — I have to say here the English language lacks in qualifying precisely those notions. In this regard, Kate Lacey’s explorations around “listening in”, “listening out” and “mediated listening” is, to my understanding, an indication of the difficulty to define “the act of listening.” However, there is another aspect in which the “soeur écoute” appears as unbeatable : her ability to report. I suppose the relevance of the report depended on the visitor, so the nun had to decide whether or not to report to the abbess.
In French, there is a word to designate those who report: “rapporteur/rapporteuse.” When I was a kid, in a French school somewhere in France, being a “rapporteuse” was an insult. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remember the litany that was sung through the school’s playground against the poor one who was accused (I use the feminine here in order to relate with the nun, but it could be a boy of course). It was always “delivered” with the same few music notes and tone, by three, four, five kids, arm in arm, sweeping the playground with this human singing barrier of accusation:
Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ — (She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬)
All this to say that the “soeur écoute” reminds us that listening is linked to the act of reporting. In Listen: A History of Our Ears, Peter Szendy underlines listening as being not at all benevolent, the kindly meaning being a very late one in the long evolution of the notion. Quite the contrary, argues the French philosopher and musicologist, listening holds a great amount of perversity. When observing the “soeur écoute”, this is what we see: a woman whose listening is not kind.
She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬
Reaching through the bars of the grille
Let us revisit the video at 02:20: observing, again and again, the gesture of the nun with the camera cable. Her body and the grille. Her face and attitude. What she says. How she tries to plug the cable. Her hands and arms. Her fingers. Her way to deal with the grille. The nun is in movement between (and with) those technological objects, digitally ensuring the mediation between both worlds. In Listen, Szendy argues (in an ironic passage of the book, hence difficult to quote) that listening is “a matter of touching.” He stands up for “listening with our fingertips” (in the French edition, slightly different: “l’écoute au bout des doigts”). While doing so, Szendy plays wonderfully with the word “digital.” In French it has two meanings : “digital” refers to the fingers, but also to the digital, like the one of the digital technologies (although more often translated as “numérique”). The “digital” intervention of “sister listener” then takes a new dimension, between fingers and technology.
She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬
In All Ears, Szendy highlights listening as a kind of intelligence activity, “activité de renseignement” in French. Yet, “renseignement” also means filling in a metadata, or, if you prefer, a field that describes a digital object. Like the nun trying to plug in the cable. The “soeur écoute” then appears as a figure of a “filling in” processes and practices : while listening, she also informs, and in-forms.
The grille and the grid
I just read the fascinating story around a visit in a cloistered monastery close to my home in Montréal. Again a grille. Again a green curtain. This time though, the nuns reach easily through the bars, shaking hands. Nuns have the internet. They know how to catch the rumor of the world, if they wish to.
My partner told me recently: “it seems you are building a case on someone whose job does not exist anymore to reflect on something very contemporary, the digital.” Yes, it is exactly that. This is what is so liberating with the “soeur écoute.” And no, it is not exactly that, my dear: I’m not sure she does not exist anymore. What if a little bit of a “soeur écoute” would be in all of us? In other other words, what if the way she listens would inform how we listen today, making the connection between listening as person (the “someone”), listening as place (the “somewhere”), and listening as object (the “something”)?
I see the “soeur écoute” as a reading grid, or framework, which forces to rethink listening and its role. Reaching through the bars, she helps expand the study of listening beyond its sonorous contours. She encourages to consider listening in order to include the non-sonorous aspects of “keeping watch” and “sentineling”. Going from one world to another, from one side to another, pulling aside curtains, she urges us, “researchers of listening”, being “tierce” and part-time in our methods and attitudes. Even if it has to go such as far as considering listening as a counterpoint to sound. After all this, maybe, starting to auscultate the relationship between listening and digital humanities.
I have to go. I have put Listening under custody. I have a cable to plug, and a report to write.
I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬
Featured image: FreeImages.com/Michael P***
Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.
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Editor’s Note: Today we start off a series, a propos for World Listening Day 2016 on digital humanities and listening. As I mentioned in my Call for Abstracts in March, this forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it? The posts this month consider: how have particular digital studies, projects, apps, and online archives addressed, challenged, expanded, played with, sharpened, questioned, and/or shifted “listening”? What happens to digital humanities when we use “listening” as a keyword rather than (or alongside) “sound”?
We will be hosting the work of DH scholars who are doing exactly that: prompting readers to consider what it means to listen in the context of DH projects. Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Emmanuelle Sonntag, who has written for SO! before, will be addressing listening from the starting point of the documentary Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). Today, however, we start things off with a collaborative piece from the Vibrant Lives team on the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records.
Don’t just stand there. Take a seat and listen.-Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
In the 1920s a young woman was admitted by her mother to a mental institution in California. The local doctor recommended her for sterilization with the following notes:
has been reported to have interest in sexual encounters
Mother is pregnant and cannot care for her (thinks she may be able to post-sterilization).
This brief note is representative of the stories of the roughly 20,000 people who were sterilized in California institutions of mental health. The soundscape of these institutions is largely lost to the past. We cannot recover the sounds of treatment spaces, family visits, recreation, and everyday life of those in the care of the state of California who were considered feeble, insane, or otherwise out of control.
Like the conversations about illness and reproduction presumably had in those halls, the sounds of salpingectomies (removal of fallopian tubes), vasectomies (severing the vas deferens), and, later, tubal ligations are lost to us. In the absence of human rights violations, this is perhaps as it should be; we cannot collect the minutiae of everyday life. But in situations where reproductive and disability rights have been limited, where we can see race and gendered bias, we may well have need of telling such stories.
Reparative justice best practices dictate that survivors should be able to tell their own stories on their own terms. How can we listen to such stories when the majority of our survivors have died and we have little to nothing in their own words?
While conversations between patients, parents, and doctors might be lost to us in terms of playback, they have embodied traces in the nearly 20,000 people sterilized in California between 1919 and the 1950s under eugenic sterilization laws. The 19,995 sterilization recommendations and notes, brought together under the project Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, cannot currently be made publicly available due to U.S. patient privacy laws. Important documentary films like No Más Bebés, which tells the story of Mexican-American women sterilized without consent at Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center in the 1960s and 1970s, have made it possible for us to hear accounts of such reproductive injustice first hand. But for the thousands of people sterilized between 1909 and the repeal of eugenics laws in 1979, we must find other ways to listen and to hear.
Given the privacy restrictions on working with this dataset and our concerns to care for the people who are represented therein, we (the Vibrant Lives team) felt it was important to find alternative methods that did more than de-identified and quantified graphs could do. We know all too well that we can’t recover the past “as it was.” Nevertheless, we are working to bring the emotional and intellectual power of sound and critical listening to a largely unheard history of sterilization of Latinx people. Specifically, our project prompts listeners to consider how listening fits into reparative justice for the victims of sterilization.
Listening Toward under the Law
That eugenics laws and their surgical enactments played out in racialized and gendered ways is not surprising but bears repeating. For example, according to work by Alexandra Minna Stern, Nicole Novak, Natalie Lira, and Kate O’Connor, patients with Spanish or Hispanic surnames were three times as likely to be sterilized as their non-Hispanic counterparts. Those lost sounds have traces in California’s Latinx communities, both in terms of the community structures themselves, but also in terms of soundscapes that never were because of sterilization. This acoustic ecosystem in which the politics of race, gender, nation, and mental health converged in dramatic fashion is recorded only in the bodies and medical records of the patients and the 21st century communities shaped by the children, born and unborn, of these patients.
Not only are we limited to working with the textual, institutionally generated remnants of the past, we are also constrained by 21st century health and personal data privacy laws. Our archive is a set of medical records and as such this collection contains sensitive patient data that must be de-identified and used in accordance with contemporary HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and IRB protocols.
This means that we cannot reveal names, dates, and other identifying information regarding those who were sterilized in the first half of the 20th century. We are unable to tell individual stories of sterilization lest the individual be identified. Traditionally, historians have used fictional composites to tell such stories and our collaborator Alexandra Minna Stern used this method in her 2015 second edition of Eugenic Nation.
The HIPAA guidelines and their impact on how we tell the history of medicine raises important legal questions about how we might balance a public right to know about practices (we’d call them abuses) within state-run facilities with the need to protect patients’ rights to privacy regarding their own reproductive and mental health. In some cases, it seems as though the privacy guidelines protect the state more than they protect any individual patient. In fact, we have seen a remarkable lack of concern for these records in their discovery and transmission. The records themselves were largely abandoned when Stern discovered the microfilm reels in the 2000s. They were lost again after she returned them to the state after having made a copy. The originals are lost as far as we know.
Listening Toward the Past
Vibrant Lives is working not with sounds found, but with archival records found and then sonified (transformed into sound) as a way of listening toward those rooms, conversations, and procedures. In brief, this sonification entails the following steps
- Selecting a subset of the large data set (we can’t currently process the whole)
- Selecting between two and four axes of information, such as gender, race, age at sterilization recommendation, consent, or nationality
- Mapping the informational values into numerical space – sonification requires the creation of a dataset whose limits are 1 and -1 (based on how the speakers work)
This work has been done to date using two tools: Sonification Sandbox, an open source tool developed at the University of Georgia, and GarageBand, a proprietary music making tool that comes with Macintosh computers. We use Sonification Sandbox to create the score first and then turn to GarageBand because it has a greater range of instrumentation available. The sonification process is still very experimental and exploratory. Team member Jacqueline Wernimont does all of our sonifications for us and she is trained as a historian of literature and technology. While she has extensive experience within digital humanities methodologies, sonification is a new effort for us.
We have begun producing short sample tracks that allow us to enact the kind of listening toward that we’re advocating for. In the track below, we have data from the age, gender, and consent axes for the period 1940-1949. Additionally, this sample draws only from what we’ve described as “Spanish surname” patients, the vast majority of whom were American-born of Mexican descent, although they also include some other Latinx national communities.
Latinx Eugenics Sample Track
As you listen, each note represents one Spanish-surnamed person recommended for sterilization. The children, both boys and girls under 18, who were sterilized without consent are the highest notes, and the adult men who were sterilized with consent are the lowest.
Listening Toward as Ethical and Communal
Listening is always about an ethical relationship and it is particularly fraught when the effort to listen and to encourage others to listen entails hearing about a person’s most intimate health information and experiences. This is particularly true when those experiences may include trauma from unwanted surgery or other experiences.
While we might think of patient privacy as a form of care, in this instance we find ourselves wondering who these regulations actually serve. According to the updated 2013 HIPAA guidelines, personal health records are no longer considered sensitive information 50 years after death (it was previously 100 years). Preliminary estimates by our team indicate that as many as 1,000 survivors might be alive in 2016. However, while the vast majority of the people discussed in the records are no longer alive, family and friends may well be.
We respect the need for family members and friends to privacy when it comes to the health records of their loved ones. At the same time, an essential component of most restorative justice programs, like those undertaken for North Carolina eugenic sterilizations, is an articulation of the violations, which HIPAA blocks in many ways (North Carolina’s cases were revealed by investigative journalists who are not subject to HIPAA and the IRB regulations that we must adhere to as academics). As a consequence, those who might most benefit from reparations – sterilized individuals and their immediate families, including children – are likely to die before the privacy laws enable us to draw attention to the individual impacted by the racialized and gendered discrimination evident in the records.
The sonification of these records and the companion participatory performances that we facilitate allow us to intervene and share these important stories before all of the survivors and family members have passed away. We have the opportunity to drive justice-oriented processes forward while there is still time.
Consent/Non-consent Sample Track (entire population)
Vibrant Lives focuses not just on the stories but also on the people who listen to the audio. We spend time watching how our audiences participate in listening toward the history of eugenic sterilization in California. Below are images of recent presentations of this work in which we’ve incorporated both haptic (touch-based) and sonic performance.
Part of what we see here is the attentive posture of our participants – leaning in to feel a history of sterilization. The haptics are being shared with a thin, red metal wire that the participants have to touch lightly in order to not dampen the signal for others. For us, this is an effort to bring care for the experiences of others into the performance. The history of eugenics has impacted communities and we are creating communal aural and tactile experiences as a way to disrupt the notion that academic work and knowledge is a solitary endeavor.
The performance captured above is also an exercise in patience and as such expresses a willingness on the part of the participants to sit with a disturbing history. The sample people are listening to and feeling here is 100 seconds long with each note/vibration corresponding to one person who was sterilized. In most performances the participants stay for the duration of the piece, but there have been instances where people have touched a haptic piece and then walked quickly away. We can’t know why some have chosen to walk away.
Some of those who have stayed have shared with us that they felt responsible to feel and hear each person. It’s an abstraction, to be sure, but we are intrigued by the power of listening and feeling to encourage people to not simply look and walk away. As one participant at a Michigan performance noted, the “tingling (from the haptics) lingers, it’s spooky.” Another participant at the same performance indicated that she felt “more implicated” having engaged with a multi-media experience than with a visual like a graph or chart. When asked why, she responded “I’ve felt it and will continue to remember that, but still will likely do nothing in response.”
In creating performances where participants have to care for one another and care enough about the people represented in the data to stay through a durational piece, we are working to redress the extraordinary lack of care that the records represent, both in terms of testifying to the violence done to men’s and women’s bodies and in terms of the State of California’s lack of regard for this history.
Sounds Felt, Sounds Touched
Our work is an ongoing experiment. We’ve moved from haptics along a wire, to haptic spheres that vibrate with the sonification. The image above is from one of these events this spring. We’ve retained the communal effect while transforming the embodied structure of the event. Participants now gather around, encircling the object as they listen toward a history of reproductive injustices. People still tend to lean in – to have heads lowered in a posture of intense focus. The sphere itself demands that someone cradle it and it also requires that people touch lightly once again so as to not dampen the experience for others.
We plan to expand our durational events in our next iteration known as “Safe Harbor” in which we hope to explore how to best care for those people sterilized by the state by caring for their data. In this instance we are thinking of sounds (and more) that we’ll make together with impacted communities. For this work we are particularly interested in engaging audience members in the hosting and care of the eugenics data and, by extension, the survivors.
As a way of enacting a site-specific response to both historical and contemporary human and reproductive rights violations that have occurred in the state, we plan to stage this durational event in California. We’ll begin by inviting audiences to help build and shape an empty warehouse space with us, transforming the empty space into a place of care where we can listen toward these histories. The audience will be invited to converse about the research and reflect upon conversations through making, creating, and ultimately building up our safe harbor.
We plan to listen to and co-create with impacted communities through collective making of the space. As a result, Safe Harbor will enact a cooperative improvisational process shaping socially responsive dialogue – performing, hearing, listening, documenting, and rebuilding notions of care in real time. What we hope to discover here are shared sounds of resistance, repair, and healing. Sounds that might let us listen toward the past, while also creating more just futures.
Featured image: “Water under 12.5 Hz vibration” by Jordi Torrents, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Vibrant Lives is a collaborative team that makes, stages, and performs as part of interactive multimedia installations. Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley are both professors in the Dance area of the School of Film, Theater, and Dance at Arizona State University (ASU). Jacqueline Wernimont’s home department at ASU is English and she’s a digital humanities and digital archives specialist. Wernimont and Rajko are also multimedia artists/faculty working in Arts, Media, and Engineering.
The data derives from a larger project, known as Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, a multidisciplinary collaboration among Arizona State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and University of Michigan. This larger collaboration includes historical demography and epidemiology, public health, history of medicine, digital storytelling, data visualization, and the construction of interactive digital platforms. This team is quite large, with our center of gravity residing at the University of Michigan where historian of science Alexandra Minna Stern directs the Eugenic Rubicon lab. Stern discovered the microfilms of more than 20,000 eugenic sterilization patient records in 2013. Stern and her team have created a dataset with this unique set of patient records that includes 212 discrete variables culled from over 30,000 individual documents. This resource is the first of its kind, encompassing almost one-third of the total sterilizations performed in 32 states in the U.S. in the 20th century.
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