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‘No Place Like Home’: Dissonance and Displacement in Gimlet Media’s Fiction Podcast “Homecoming”

Promote International Podcast Day

In honor of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! brings you Pod-Tember (and Pod-Tober too, actually, now that we’re bi-weekly) a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Enjoy! –JS

Last month, Gimlet media released the audio-feature length podcast The Final Chapters of Richard Brown Winters, starring Catherine Keener, Parker Posey, Bobby Cannavale, Sam Waterston, and Darrell Britt-Gibson, many of the same cast members from their critically-acclaimed podcast Homecoming, and also co-written by Eli Horowitz, Homecoming’s co-creator and co-showrunner. Along with the podcast’s famous move to Amazon TV in 2017, Gimlet’s podcast reunion prompted me to re-listen to Homecoming, trying to figure out how its signature use of audio—characterized by Horowitz as “letting the scenes and the conversation create the action instead of describing the action”—propelled the series to its success in the first place.    

Homecoming concerns characters connected with afictional military rehabilitation facility in Tampa, Florida, that ostensibly prepares soldiers suffering PTSD for a return for civilian life. The soldiers are subjects of an experimental drug treatment program devised by the US Defence Department-affiliated Geist Group to erase traumatic memories of combat and eliminate resistance to re-deployment.  Set in a specifically post-9/11 political milieu, the series plays out in the implied real world context of multiple and on-going US foreign military interventions. Homecoming foregrounds the sonic/auditory modes associated with war–in particular covert electronic surveillance–working to create an atmosphere infused with suspicion, secrecy and deception. In Homecoming’s dissonant sonic/narrative environment ‘home’ is as perilous as the frontline. 

Dissonance and displacement inherent in the auditory experience are overarching themes in Homecoming and manifest in an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding temporality, memory, identity and ideas of “home” itself. The sonic world of Homecoming is infused with a sense of discord—recorded audio is subject to manipulation and misinterpretation—and the voice is a site of multiplicities that destabilise concepts of identity and reality. The podcast’s pervasive “out of tune-ness” produces a heightened state of listening – a hypervigilance – both in Homecoming’s characters as they attempt to decipher multiple conflicting aural “intel,” and in the podcast’s audience as we do likewise. It is this dissonance that compels Homecoming’s listeners to prick up our ears and listen more keenly.

GETTING “SITUATED”

The series’ distinctive non-linear, explicitly sound technology-mediated storytelling style takes the form of an “enigmatic collage” of sound artifacts: recorded therapy sessions between Heidi Bergman (Catherine Keener), a case worker/counsellor at the Homecoming facility, and Walter Cruz (Oscar Isaac), a soldier whose recovery she is monitoring; fraught phone conversations between Heidi and the heavily-compromised senior management at Geist; covert surveillance tapes of interaction at the facility between Walter and fellow soldier, Schrier (Babak Tafti), and between Walter and Heidi; and a series of voice messages ostensibly left by Walter on a mobile phone he has given to his mother.  

In “Mandatory,” Homecoming’s opening episode, in a fragment of a recorded counselling session between Heidi and her client Walter Cruz, the second in a succession of these fragments that play out over Series One, Heidi tells Walter that her objective is to help to get him “situated” now that he’s back. Through abrupt temporal shifts between the recorded past and the present, the series reveals that this objective was always already thwarted and that Walter’s “situation” in the present is unfixed, unknown and potentially unknowable. Homecoming’s specific atmospheric aural/narrative mode conveys an unsettling sense of fractured selves in an ever-more fractured sonic landscape. Walter functions in this landscape as a reflexive site of multiple sonic presences. At once static and mutable, fixed and shifting he “exists” and is transmitted across a range of sound technologies. Though captured by these recordings, at the same time he evades capture by those seeking him out.

In Homecoming, Walter’s presence is constructed through absence, which positions him as a kind of acousmêtre, described by Michel Chion in The Voice in Cinema as “one who is not-yet-seen but is liable to appear at any moment” (21). Chion has described how “an entire story… can hang on the epiphany of the acousmêtre”…the quest to bring the acousmêtre into the light” (23). In considering the podcast form, being “seen” can be understood as the conveying of presence, that is, the technical and affective means through which a character is felt or experienced. In Homecoming’s specific reflexive use of sound technology to construct Walter as present yet “unseen,” Walter is everywhere and nowhere, always there but at the same time always not there. The series finds a means of achieving what Chion has suggested is unachievable in radio and, by inference, in the podcast – “playing with” presence, partial presence and absence (21). This affective ‘play with presence’ works too to challenge concepts of the ‘disembodied’ voice and speaks to Christine Ehrick’s call in “Gendered Soundscapes” for a more nuanced exploration of the voice/body relationship. As Ehrick puts it – “if the voice is not the body, what is it?”.

In “Mandatory,” Walter is specific about his willingness to adhere to the conditions of his treatment: “I want to be in compliance,” he tells Heidi.  Yet Walter’s multiple itinerant sonic selves seem to resist compliance. Though his presence in Homecoming is constructed through a series of seemingly fixed recordings that might suggest change is precluded, Walter is, paradoxically, a site of radical change. In his technology-contingent presence in the series, Walter, having removed himself from circulation, becomes a ‘soldier-body’ in revolt, resisting placement, compliance and commodification. Goldberg and Willse have identified the “soldier-body” as a “temporary” conduit of “the networks of technoscience and capital [that allows] these networks to adapt and survive” in “Losses and Returns: the Soldier in Trauma” (266-267). It is an argument that manifests in Homecoming in Geist’s covert pharmacological strategies to remediate the psychological fragmentation of war trauma in order to render the ‘soldier-body’ utterly compliant and redeployable. Walter’s perpetually withheld presence revokes his soldier-body’s viability as bio-capital and is framed in the series as an existential threat to the military-industrial complex.

“Redacted,” by Flickr User Bill Smith (CC BY 2.0)

“IF WE’RE NOT IN FLORIDA, WHERE ARE WE?”

Ideas of place and presence, particularly in relation to the non-compliant soldier-body, are further problematized in Homecoming in the sole interaction we hear between Walter and Schrier, another returned soldier, in yet another mode of voice recording. In Episode 2, “Pineapple,” within an internet-based call, Heidi’s boss Colin plays her a surveillance recording from the Homecoming cafeteria, one of several instances in the series of the multiple-layering of sound technology. We listen in as  Walter and Schrier eat the pineapple-based dessert they’ve been served and debate Schrier’s “pineapple-induced” doubts about their actual location. For an agitated Schrier, pineapple is pineapple-no-longer but a repository of a sinister excess of meaning – a sign that “they,” the military, are “really laying it on thick with this Florida shit.”  Are they in Florida or not? Schrier demands evidence: “the only reason we think we’re in Florida is because that’s what they told us”. These duplications, both actual (the recording) and suspected (a fake Florida), produce an atmosphere layered with dissonance and uncertainty.

While Shrier’s suspicion of a fake Florida proves unfounded, this other duplication (the surveillance recording) has catastrophic consequences for him. In Episode 6, “Hysterical”, we learn that after being dropped from the Homecoming treatment programme, Schrier was abruptly taken off the medication that was being administered to him without his knowledge (via the pineapple, as it happens). In yet another fraught call with a distressed Heidi, Colin matter-of-factly recounts the disastrous aftermath for Schrier: “he bit off a chunk of his tongue, spit it at an orderly, then he tried to hang himself. They’ve got him in restraints.”

Not only do the Homecoming soldiers bring traces of war home with them – traumatic memories and symptoms of PTSD – but the place to which they return turns out to bear traces of a war zone. The America of Homecoming is a liminal space, an environment that harbours hidden dangers. While ostensibly home turf, America is a space that functions, in an orchestrated clandestine manner, as an outpost of war, or rather, encompassed within what Ben Anderson has identified as the borderlessness of “total war” (169-171).  For Schrier, sonic capture within the Homecoming surveillance recordings pre-figures further physical capture. Ultimately, he ends up hospitalised and literally restrained.

“Declassification of Classified,” by Flickr User Bill Smith (CC BY 2.0)

“HEY MA, IT’S ME, IT’S WALTER…”

Though carceral, a place of enclosure that gestures toward the enclosure inherent in the idea of “total war,” the sonic space of the recorded voice artifact in Homecoming exists also as a site of resistance. Walter’s presence in Season Two manifests via a series of voicemail messages left on a cell phone he has given to his mother, Gloria (Mercedes Ruehl). In Episode 8, “Cipher,” Colin, masquerading as a lawyer taking a class action against the government on behalf of the soldiers maltreated at the Homecoming Facility (one of several fake identities he assumes), persuades Gloria to hand over this phone. As if also infected with Walter’s restlessness, the audio files of these messages migrate from Gloria’s phone to the Geist Server to Heidi’s laptop before we actually hear them. The messages provide a cartographic trace of Walter’s movements west, then north, then south and provide those tracking him, Colin and Heidi, with the first hard evidence of his possible whereabouts. Or at least they seem to.

Again Homecoming draws attention to technologies of reproduction and their influence in how we “conceptualise the voice and its powers” as Weidman states in her essay on “Voice” in Keywords in Sound (236). Walter’s phone is understood as an extension of his affective presence. When subsequent faked messages are left on the phone—the first constructed by Gloria to throw Walter’s trackers off the scent, the second by Heidi in order to entrap Colin—it is this aura of authenticity, the misplaced faith in the faithfulness of the sound recording that serves to legitimate the fakes. The messages, both real and faked, carry the aura of the original voice but their increasingly uncertain status signals “the ontological plasticity of the voice” that Nick Prior has articulated in “On Vocal Assemblages” (489), how “the voice sounds out in a social space comprised of a whole panoply of discourses, techniques and machines that objectify and posit it as a particular kind of object and information”(495). In this instance simulation is an act of ‘pushback’ against networks of power, against the seemingly-fixed borders of recording technology, it is an act that for Walter effects a kind of escape. He remains ‘un-situated.’ Perhaps the safest place for Walter, the only place like home, is in the ‘no place’ of the digital recordings in which he manifests.

Farokh Soltani describes the podcasting form as “the key transformative development in the history of audio drama” in “Inner Ears and Distant Worlds: Podcast Dramaturgy and the  Theatre of the Mind” because of the way it “detaches drama from the economic, institutional and political requirements of the radio broadcast” (189). The vast trove of alternative, ‘unsanctioned’ voices podcasting has made audible can be said to resonate with the discernible hum of difference, the form itself can be understood as inherently dissonant. Its fundamental alterity imbues it with the affective essence of dissonance that Sean Gurd articulates in Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece (2016) as “extra-audible information…[a kind of] roughness, a richer, grainier, less-polished sound” (11). The sense of palpable auditory/affective ‘roughness’ or dissonance permeates Homecoming sonic world, frequently in the foregrounded presence of sonic ‘dirtiness’ but always in its distinctive non-linear assemblage and in its inherent critique of the far-reaching and devastating impacts of war. Homecoming’s audio and structural strategies, shifting both temporally and between sonic modes, demand too that we, the listeners, like Walter and Heidi, are actively and continually engaged in the urgent process of attempting to find our bearings, to get ourselves ‘situated.’

Featured Image: “American Redaction,” by Jared Rodriguez / truthout (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Miranda Wilson is a Creative Practice Ph.D. Candidate in Film Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her creative and scholarly thesis (Supervisor, Prof. Annie Goldson) interrogates and experiments with the ways in which voice/image positioning in documentary can and might invigorate screen space as a site of common space and counter-space. Her research encompasses strategies of indirect representation, in particular with regard to gender and voice/image relations; ensemble narratives that work to de-centre the protagonist; low/no budget filmmaking methods that democratize the means of production and documentary practice that is as much about interrogating the documentary form as it is about the subject it engages with. The research project seeks to detect and articulate documentary space in which individuals cohere as a citizenry and everyday practices of democracy are enlivened. Miranda also holds a BA Honours (First Class) from the University of Auckland. Her graduate studies have encompassed research into sound and dissonance; sound/image relations; documentary theory and practice; and representations of spatial transgressions in cinema space.

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One Scream is All it Takes: Voice Activated Personal Safety, Audio Surveillance, and Gender Violence

Just a few days ago,  London Metro Police Officer Wayne Couzens pled guilty to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by, a 33-year-old woman he abducted while she walked home from a friend’s house.  Since the news broke of her disappearance in March 2021, the UK has been going through a moment of national “soul-searching.” The national reckoning has included a range of discussions–about casual and spectacular misogynistic violence, about a victim-blaming criminal justice system that fails to address said violence–and responses, including a vigil in south London that was met with aggressive policing, that has itself entered into and furthered the UK’s soul-searching. There has also been a surge in the installation of personal safety apps on mobile phones; One Scream (OS), “voice activated personal safety,” is one of them.

Available for Android and iOS devices, OS claims to detect and be triggered by a woman’s (true) “panic scream,” and, after 20 seconds and unless the alarm is cancelled, it will send both a text message to the user’s chosen contacts and an automated call with the location to a nominated contact. The app is meant to help women in situations where dialing 999, (assumed to be the natural and preferred response to danger), is not viable for the user and, in the ideal embodiment, this nominated contact, “the helper,” is the police. OS did automatically contact police (and required a paid subscription) in 2016, but it did not work out well and by 2018, was declared a work in progress: “What we really want is for the app to dial 999 when it detects a panic scream, but first, we need to prove how accurate it is. That’s where you come in. . .” OS is currently in beta and free (while in beta). It is unclear whether the developers have given up with that utmost expression of OS

OS is based on the premise that men fight and women scream —“It is an innate response for females in danger to scream for help”—and its correct functioning requires its users to be ready to do so, even if such an innate and instinctive response doesn’t come naturally to them: “If you do not scream, the app will not be able to detect you.” However, there are two discriminations in terms of scream analysis, in how the app discriminates while listening for and to screams, and in failing to detect or respond to them. The first has to do with who can use the app (i.e., whose panicked screams are able to trigger it) in the first place. This is presented in terms of gender and age—for the moment, OS can listen to “girls aged 14+ and women under 60,” where cisgender, as in anything OS, is taken for granted.   It is, however, a matter of acoustic parameters set by the developers (notably, of reaching a certain high pitch and loudness threshold). Which is why the app was implemented to include a “screamometer” for potential users to scream, hard, figure out, and see whether they can reach “the intensity that is needed to set it off” (confetti means they do). The second one discriminates true panicked screams from other types of screams (e.g., happiness, untrue panic). As presented by the developers, both discriminations are problematic and misleading, and so is “the science behind screaming” One Scream‘s website boasts of. 

The app does not quite distinguish true from fake screams, nor joy from panic for that matter.  Instead, One Scream listens for “roughness,” which a team of scream researchers—it truly is a “tiny science lesson” —has identified as scream’s “privileged acoustic niche” for communicating alarm.  According to this 2015 study in Current Biology,  “roughness” is the distinctive quality of effective, compelling human screams (and of artificial alarms) in terms of their ability to trigger listeners and in terms of perceived urgency. Abrupt increases in loudness and pitch are not unique to screams. The rougher the scream, then, the greater its perceived “alarmess” and its alarming effect. That’s why developers say OS “hears real distress,” essentially “just as your own ear.” However, other studies suggest your own ears might not be so great at distinguishing happiness from fear and scream research, and particularly the specific “bit” OS builds on, by and large assumes, relies on, and furthers the irrelevance of “real” on the scream vocalizer end.  

In OS’s pledge to its users, the app’s fine-tuning to its scream niche—i.e., to rough temporal modulations between 30 and 150Hz—is as important, as is the developers (flawed) insistence on the irredeemably uniqueness of true panic’s scream vocalizations, which they posit are instinctive and can’t be plotted or counterfeit: “Experience has shown that it is difficult for women to fake their scream.” Yet, current scream analysis and research primarily and largely relies on screams delivered by human research subjects (often university students, ideally drama students) in response to prompts for the purposes of studying them as well as, especially, on screams extracted from commercial movies and sound effect libraries. The same applies to the other types of vocalizations (e.g., neutral and valenced speech, screamed sentences, laughter, etc.) produced or retrieved for the purposes of figuring out what it is that makes a scream a scream, and how to translate that into a set of quantifiable parameters to capitalize on that knowledge, regardless of the agenda. 

Because of their interest for audio surveillance applications, screams are currently a contested object and a hot commodity. Much as is the case with other scream distinction/detection enterprises, the initial training of OS most likely involved that vast and available bank of crafted scream renditions—by professional actors, machines, combinations of those, by and for an industry otherwise partial to female non-speech sounds—conveniently the exact type of “thick with body” female voicings OS is also invested in. For some readers, myself included, this might come across as creepy and, science-wise, flimsy. 

Screencap of ad for Chilla, a scream alert app developed in India

Scream research often relies on how human listeners recruited for the cause respond to audio samples. Apparently, whether the scream is “real,” acted, or post-produced is neither something study subjects necessarily distinguish nor a determining factor in how they rate and react. In terms of machines learning to scream-mine audio data, it is what it is: “natural corpora with extreme emotional manifestation and atypical sounds events for surveillance applications” are scarce, unreliable, and largely unavailable because of their private character. That is no longer the case for OS, which has been accruing, and machine-learning from, its beta-user screams as well as how users themselves monitor/rate their screams and the app’s sensibility. OS users’ screams might not be exactly ad lib, as users/vocalizers first practice with the “screamometer” to learn to scream for and as a means to interface with OS, but it’s as natural a corpora as it gets, and it’s free for the users of the screams. OS not only echoes “voice stress analysis” technologies invested in distinguishing true from fake or in ranking urgency, but, as part and parcel of a larger scream surveillance enterprise, also public surveillance technologies such as ShotSpotter, all of which Lawrence Abu Hamdan has brilliantly dissected in his essay on the recording of the police gunshots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Chilla is a strikingly similar app developed and available in India—although there’s a nuanced difference in the developer’s rationale for Chilla, which in its pursuance of scream-activated personal safety also aims to compensate for the fact that many girls and women don’t call “parents or police” for help when harassed or in danger. As presented, Chilla responds both to assaults and to women’s ambivalence towards their guardians. The latter is, too, a manifestation of the breadth of gender-based violence as a socio-cultural problem, one that Chilla is trained to fail to listen to and one that, because of OS’s particular niche user market, is simply out of the purview of its UK counterpart.

That problem–and that failure–is neither exclusive to India nor to scream-activated personal safety apps. Calling 999 in the UK, 911 in the US, or 091 in Spain, where I am writing, doesn’t come naturally to many targets of sexual and gender-based violence because they don’t conceive police as a help or because, directly, they see it as a risk—to themselves and/or to others. As Angela Ritchie has copiously documented in Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, women of color and Black women in particular are at extremely high risk for rape and sexual abuse by police officers, as high as 1 in 5 women in New York City alone.

OS, then,  is framed as a pragmatic, partial answer to a problem it doesn’t solve: “We should never have to dress in a certain way…but we do.” The specifics of how OS would actually “save” or even has saved its users in particular scenarios go unexplained, because OS is meant to help with feeling safe; getting into the details, and the what ifs, compromises that service. This sense of safety has two components and is based on two promises: one, that OS will listen to your (panic) scream, and, two, as of now via the intermediacy of your contacts, the police will go save you. The second component and its assumed self-evidence speaks to the app’s whiteness and of its target market of white, securitized, cisgender female subjects. 

Image of woman walking alone, entitled “Can You Hear Me Screaming?” by Flickr User Stefano Corso (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over and above its acoustic profiling, the app is simply not designed with every woman in mind. OS’s branding is about a certain lifestyle—of going for early runs and dates with cis-men, of taking time for yourself because you’re super busy at your white-collar job and going for night runs, of taking inspiration from “world” women and skipping if running isn’t for you.  This lifestyle is also sold: sold as always under the threat of rape–despite its “rightfulness”–sold in a way that animates the feelings of insecurity and disempowerment that One Scream advertizes itself as capable of reversing.  Safety, then, is sold as retrievable with OS

Wearable or otherwise portable technologies to keep women “safe,” specifically from sexual assaults, are not new and are varied. These have been vigorously protested, particularly from feminist standpoints other than the white, securitized, capitalist brand OS professes—because, in (partly) delegating safety on technologies women then become personally responsible for, these technologies  further “blame” women.  For authorities and the patriarchy, this shift in blame is a relief. In discussing the racialized securitization of US university campuses, Kwame Holmes notes how despite “reactionary attacks” on campus feminism (e.g., so-called “snowflakes” complaining about bad sex) and authorities’ effective reluctance to acknowledge and challenge rape culture, anti-sexual assault technologies tend to be welcomed and accepted. As Holmes also notes, there’s no paradox in that. Those technologies flatten the discussion, deactivate more radical feminist critiques and potential strategies, and protect the status quo—not so much women and not those who, whenever an alarm sounds and especially when security forces respond, readily become insecure.  

For some readers, OS might have a dystopian sci-fi movie feel. Filmmakers have come up with more radical, yet low-tech, “solutions” and uses of high-pitched triggers. In Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983), blowing whistles, the Women’s Army bicycle brigade confronts rapists and sexual assaulters. The WA members, too, confront sexual harassers on the New York City subway, which wasn’t imagined to be equipped with CCTV.

It is not a stretch to think that OS could potentially amplify the insecurities of Black and brown people subject to white panic (screams) and to its violence, something other audio surveillance technologies are already contributing to, at least it’s not a greater stretch than to entertain situations in which police would show up and save an OS user before it’s too late. Even if it’s never triggered, as developers seem to assume will be the case for the majority of installed units—”Many people have never faced a situation where they have had to panic scream”—it’s trapped in a securitization logic that ultimately relies on masculine authority, one that calls for the expansion of CCTV cameras, wherein women are never quite secure (see Sarah Everard’s vigil). 

One Scream’s FAQs cover selected worries that users have or OS anticipates they might have. Among these, there are privacy concerns (i.e., does it listen to your conversations?) and the fear the alarm will activate “when it shouldn’t.” In the Apple Store user reviews, there’s a more popular type of concern: OS not responding to users’ screams. In other words, there’s simultaneously a worry about OS listening and detecting too much and about OS failing to listen “when it matters.” These anxieties around OS’s listening excesses and insufficiencies touch on (audio) surveillance paradoxical workings: does OS encroach on the everyday life of those within users’ cell phones’ earshot while not necessarily delivering on an otherwise modest promise of safety in highly specific scenarios? There’s a unified developer response to these concerns: OS “is trained to detect panic screams only.”

Featured Image: By Flicker User Dirk Haun. Image appears to be a woman screaming on a street corner, but is actually an advertisement on the window of a T-Mobile cell phone shop (CC BY 2.0)

María Edurne Zuazu works in music, sound, and media studies, and researches the intersections of material culture and sonic practices in relation to questions of cultural memory, social and environmental justice, and the production of knowledge (and of ignorance) in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries. María has presented on topics ranging from sound and multimedia art and obsolete musical instruments, to aircraft sound and popular music, and published articles on telenovela, weaponized uses of sound, music and historical memory, and music videos. She received her PhD in Music from The CUNY Graduate Center, and has been the recipient of Fulbright and Fundación La Caixa fellowships. She is a 2021-2022 Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. 

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