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 The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions.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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Justin Bieber caught me off guard last year. There I was, minding my own business, listening to a pop station, and this breathy little thing, this delicate vocal wrapped in a halo of shimmering effects starts piping through my car. I didn’t even realize it was him at first; it had been so long since I’d heard a new Bieber song. And I had no clue the production was from Skrillex and Diplo (from their 2015 Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü), which is why I was probably also not ready for the drop, that moment when the song’s tension releases and I’m suddenly gliding across a syncopated bass synth while Bieber’s vocals are pinched into a dolphin call. Somehow, two of the most notoriously unsubtle producers and the posterboy for “too much, too soon” had snuck up on me with “Where Are Ü Now” (WAÜN).
WAÜN’s drop from nowhere isn’t brand new. Subtle soars and understated drops are officially A Thing. More importantly, they do work beyond the sonic aesthetic. In this case, I want to listen to WAÜN in the context of Bieber’s performance of gender, specifically with an ear toward the way Skrillex and Diplo mix elements from dancepop’s 2015 toolkit to produce a track that plays on feminine tropes, which articulate a kind of masculinity. Listening to WAÜN alongside Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy (2015) amplifies the male privilege at play in WAÜN. James calls attention to the way drops can sonify feminine resilience, and WAÜN’s surprise drop toys with that resilience in a thoroughly heteromasculine way. I’ll first set up how drops usually work, then read James in the context of Bieber’s gender performance as heard in WAÜN.
Drops, at their most basic, are climactic moments when a song’s full instrumental measure hits (hence “drop”), often after some key elements of the instrumental have been removed so that the climax can sound more intense. At that broad level, any genre can employ a drop of some sort. EDM and dancepop drops—the kind that most directly inform the music of Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber—are bass-heavy and typically follow a soar that intensifies volume, texture, rhythm, and/or pitch: you soar to a sonic plateau or a cliff, and with a “YEEEEEES!!!!!” coast on some wobbly goodness to the next verse.
The pre-chorus soar in the Messengers/Sir Nolan/Kuk Harrell-produced “All Around the World” from Bieber’s 2012 Believe is a solid example. In the video below, the soar starts at 0:45, the chorus enters at 1:00, and the drop lands at 1:15. It’s textbook: the instrumental is stripped back and filtered, and in the opening moments, we hear a descending bass glide. A filter does what its name suggests–it filters out a prescribed set of frequencies so that we only hear a certain range, and in this case it’s the low end that comes through. The effect makes the synths sound like they’re pulsating through water, and the higher frequency overtones take on a shimmery quality. Over the course of the 8-measure soar, the higher frequency range is brought into earshot, and then, on the second half of the eighth measure…nothing. This nothingness is integral to James’s central argument in Resilience & Melancholy: nothingness intensifies what follows. In these eight measures, we’ve glided down to the low end only to soar up up up until all that’s left is Bieber’s voice, confident, nasally, with just a touch of autotune as he sings the titular line that will take us to the chorus. That chorus bangs harder because of the soar to oblivion before it.
WAÜN’s drop lands at 1:09. For full context, start from the beginning and listen for the soar. (If you also need to stare dreamily into Bieber’s eyes, then by all means.)
There’s not really a soar there. No intensifying volume, texture, rhythm, pitch. The not-soar (starting at 0:48) is even a weird length, clocking in at 12 measures after an 8-measure intro and 16-measure verse have established a multiples-of-8 structural rhythm; even if we were expecting a drop, it comes four measures early. The clearest sign we get that a drop is imminent is that moment where the instrumental reduces to a quiet hiss for two measures as Bieber sings “Where are you now?” That hiss is the structural equivalent of the nothingness we hear just before “All Around the World”’s chorus, and with no traditional soar before it, we have just enough time to think “Oh shit, are they gonna….?” before we’re off, clutching tight to Justin Bieber as we ride a dolphin through the more tender parts of Skrillex’s and Diplo’s musical oceans.
Until that nothingness, this could just as easily be one of those heartfelt Bieber tunes where he reaches to the high end of his range for a chorus full of feels. That Bieber? He’s incredibly self-assured, bearing his soul because he’s certain you’ll love him. The bait-and-switch of WAÜN’s soarless drop highlights Bieber’s insecurity in this song—he’s just dolphin calls and “Where are you now”s—by creating expectations for a different persona.
So what we have here is an atypical drop, a drop that calls attention to itself by behaving differently than we expect it to, a drop that’s a study in understatement–all courtesy of three of dancepop’s resident maximalists.
Atypical soars and drops aren’t new, as producers will always toy with musical conventions as a way to disrupt expectations. Skrillex’s own “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (2010) includes a pre-drop that doesn’t soar at all. In 2015, two big acts in the dance scene, Disclosure and The Chemical Brothers, released singles that don’t soar right, either. Disclosure, whose big 2013 hit “Latch” soared rather traditionally into Sam Smith’s chorus, is coyer on “Bang That” and “Jaded.” “Bang That” includes three separate 8-measure phrases (at 0:30, 0:45, and 1:01, respectively, in the linked video) that never take off, finally settling into a descending bass line (starting at 1:09) that just repeats a rhythmic motif, running out the clock on the final four measures before the chorus. “Jaded,” at the other end of the spectrum, includes only a 4-measure pre-chorus (1:18-1:27) that seems to be sweeping upward like a traditional soar, then roller coasters down and back up over the final two measures. The instability of this soar/not-soar is punctuated with an additional eighth note tacked onto the end of the fourth measure, throwing the chorus off-kilter. The Chemical Brothers employ a similar roller coaster sweep in “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” that marks out an even eight measures (0:58-1:13) without either intensifying rhythmically or pushing to a pitch ceiling at the drop.
These soars and drops stand out precisely because, like WAÜN’s, they aren’t the norm. To help theorize WAÜN’s not-soar, I want to think with Robin James, whose Resilience & Melancholy hears soars and drops in the context of contemporary race and gender politics. James situates soars and drops as the sonic equivalent of resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately only strengthens the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that inflicts the damage that is being surmounted. In other words, women can only attempt to overcome through the damage that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy inflicts upon them. Sonically, the soar is an accrual of damage that is spectacularly (and profitably) overcome in the drop, the music that resiliently endures on the other side of nothingness. Melancholy, on the other hand, is failed resilience, a handling of damage that does not directly profit white supremacist patriarchy and that could sound any number of ways, including like a non-traditional soar. While admittedly these soars and drops aren’t always about gender politics, R&M opens space for us to think about gender and soars/drops together.
I don’t think WAÜN’s non-soar/drop is resilient or melancholic, but I do think it’s helpful to think of it as being about resilience and melancholy. This is where Bieber’s performance of masculinity comes into play. From his earliest poofy-headed, babyfaced performances, Biebs has done a modified bro thing: his heart’s on his sleeve, but mostly as a strategy for sexual conquest. “All Around the World,” again, is exemplary. In the lyrics, Bieber uses his worldly experiences to woo a potential lover, who he also negs, keeping himself in a position of power as someone who knows more, has seen more, and is willing to accept this woman despite her obvious flaws.
In WAÜN, though, I hear his performance of masculinity complicated further, as he tries out a number of more feminized tropes all at once. Lyrically, Bieber is the scorned lover who claims to have done all the care work in his relationship. Visually, he’s the pop icon whose body is ogled, scrutinized, and marked. Vocally, he receives the pitch-shift treatment that has most recently been associated with DJ Snake’s production of diva vocals (think “You Know You Like It” and “Lean On”). He also sings in a breathy style that James has elsewhere noted mimics Ellie Goulding’s vocals. Musically, Skrillex and Diplo give him the soar/drop construction to undergird his pain, a musical technique that most often signifies feminine resilience.
What bubbles up is a heteromasculine play on resilience and melancholy. Skrillex and Diplo liquidate the soar until all that’s left is a nothing-hiss before the drop. In the context of the other feminized tropes Bieber is messing with in WAÜN, this failed soar could feel melancholic, a refusal to spectacularly overcome. Overcome what, though? Bieber gets to sound resilient or melancholic without ever experiencing damage. That’s his male privilege. James points out that one of the most violent outcomes of resilience discourse is the re-enforcement of damage. If resilience is the way women become legible and profitable, then the damage inflicted by ablist white cisheteropatriarchy becomes a necessity, something that must be endured to gain access to power and resources. This is the lynchpin of James’s critique: resilience is a harmful discourse because it ultimately benefits the system it purports to overcome. Melancholy turns resilience logic on its head by refusing to treat damage as something an individual is responsible for overcoming. WAÜN, though, erases damage altogether in its initial drop. WAÜN’s feminized tropes ultimately highlight instead of unsettle Bieber’s performance of hetero-masculinity: what’s more man-ly than accessing power and resources without the threat of institutional violence?
Importantly, these feminized tropes don’t undermine Bieber’s heteromasculine performance; rather, they only seem to add nuance to the slightly bro-ier [that’s a word] Bieber performance we’ve become accustomed to. That’s what I mean when I say WAÜN is about resilience and melancholy; Skrillex and Diplo use the markers of queer or feminine overcoming and failed overcoming to re-construct Bieber’s masculinity, to toss some more ingredients into his manly mix, and the not-soar is a big component of that. Skrillex and Diplo tap into this soar experimentation, then drop it into the middle of a slightly more gender-fluid Bieber.
WAÜN’s high water mark is a few months behind us at this point, but Bieber remains hotter than ever, with “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” (another Skrillex production credit), and “Love Yourself” still dominating US and UK charts. Several more singles from Purpose (including two more Skrillex collaborations) are poised to do the same in 2016. Each of these singles extends some of the same tropes Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo explore in WAÜN—breathy vocals, misunderstood and mistreated pop icon, resilience and contrition and care in the face of a failed relationship—and I hear WAÜN’s initial drop as the sonic moment that preps Bieber’s return to the pop charts. He wades back into the mainstream with a more complex performance of heteromasculinity and reaps the profits that come with it.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.” Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.
In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.
To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.
After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.
Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.
Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.
The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).
More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that
the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)
So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.
What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369). If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.
A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?
Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.
Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.
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