** Click here to just cut to the chase and get the new mix already! LOL!**
From the very beginning, the exclamation point has been our thing. Our deeply meaningful, utopically earnest, passionately heartfelt, stubbornly insistent, collectively exposing-our-geeky-love-and-enthusiasm-to-the-world THING. And over the past seven years we have fought for it, demanded it—#sorrynotsorry print copy editors!—and, as is our fondest wish, lived and embodied it for our readers each and every Monday (and the occasional Thursday too).
On the occasion of our seventh Blog-o-versary, we wanted to share the affective vibrations of our ! with y’all, for the deceptively simple reason that we want you to feel !!!!!!!, too.
After seven years of inserting it here, there, and everywhere, we assure you our ! is not merely a visual throwaway or empty hijinks. Neither is it a public punchline to a private joke, a snooty/snotty academic tic, nor a precious hipster eye-roll. It’s not a “brand.” It was not intended as nostalgic homage to the many ! bands from the aughts or the many !-heavy songs of 1970s and 80s punk (although “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!,” totally). And during these times of solidarity and upheaval, let us be especially LOUD and clear: the exclamation mark in Sounding Out! is not, and has never been, tongue-in-cheek. We really, really mean it!
So what, then, is the “!” in Sounding Out!??
You already know what it is.
It’s a sound.
It’s a shoulder-shaking shout expressing our desire for ourselves and our writers to be heard, a sound that reaches out and touches, and hears in turn. It’s a sound that viscerally performs our down-ness, our dedication, our willingness to go there (and to stay put and listen). It’s a wail of feedback. a belly laugh. a grito. a hearty WTF. a down low OMG yes OMG (s/o to ATCQ!). a tsk of tongue against teeth. a ribcage-rattling beat. a yessssss with an ‘80s elbow pump. It’s the sound—heard, known, and sensed—of all those women feeling themselves at Beatles concerts, of thousands of voices rising together in love, power and frustration to tell the world (yet again) that #blacklivesmatter, to #sayhername and #stopkillingus . . .it’s not a specific sound, but yet you know it when you hear it, because it gives you goosebumps.
Our “!” is a—BLAM—mic drop, mixed with the grumble of the roadie who picks it up, fixes it, and passes it on. and, oh!, that anticipatory, skin-pricking static of listening out for who’s got next.
When we decided on the blog’s title back in 2009, the ! in Sounding Out! was never a subject of debate—it just appeared organically as an organic “AHA! of course!” At the time, the “!” acoustically mirrored of how the editorial collective communicated enthusiastically with each other, and symbolized, sonically and ineffably, how we thought and, more importantly, felt about the mission we laid out for ourselves and the blog, the mission we explore, challenge and renew in the company of our readers each July. That “!” puts in deeply resonant WORK, with dedication and feeling, just like we do—through words, but beyond, above, around, and below them too, hitting all those affective frequencies we don’t—or can’t—often talk about. It’s a sound that, like us, merges and keeps changing with history, context, and experience.
Here’s what the “!” has meant, and sounded, in our seventh year:
This spring, we completed our indexing project, which has been years in the making, with the dedication and assistance of our three undergraduate interns from the Binghamton University English Department: Daniel Santos, Dhruv Sehgal, and Michele Quiles. In exchange for mentorship and the opportunity to throw themselves into the inner workings of SO!, these three tirelessly compiled a hotlinked listing of each and every post we have ever published (of which today’s is the 466th!).
Click here to view the index in all of its scrollable glory!
You can reorganize the list by title, date, or author—whatever suits your needs. We hope this continues to keep our very worthy back catalog in circulation and that SO! only becomes easier to read, teach and learn from!
And, of course, we extend huge, hearty, and numerous praise-hand emoji thank yous to our trusty Assistant Visual Editor, Will Stabile, to Special Editor Neil Verma, who curated several series for SO! Thursdays this year, and to you, our dedicated writers, readers, retweeters, word-of-mouthers, sticker bearers, and general good vibe givers. We are here because you are!
This year found our podcast series—helmed by Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell—more experimental and sonic than ever. While continuing to offer recordings of symposia (here’s one on Dirty Jerz punx), soundwalks (here’s one aural trip through Yoshiwara, Tokyo), and documentaries (here’s one on the New England Soundscape Project), our podcasts have included more installation work, bringing the sound art of folks such as Cecelia Suhr (“From Ancient Soul to Ether”) and David Mollin and Salomé Voegelin (“Languages of Exile”) directly to your inboxes, earbuds, and audiostreams. By way of celebrating our 50th (!!!!!!!) podcast, AT also handled some audiophile beef regarding our so-called “low-fi” aesthetic in his February 2016 post “A Manifesto, or Sounding Out!’s 51st Podcast!!!,” click here to read more about how and why we sound like we do.
Sounding Out! continued to push the boundaries of the field of sound studies this year, geographically and intellectually. We continued to amplify artists, scholars, research, and experiences beyond the US borders, this year focusing intensively on Canada (see the bold “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project” series curated by Neil Verma, edited by Randolph Jordan and featuring himself, Vincent Andrisani, and Mitchell Akiyama, ) and focusing more intensively on Asia, particularly Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China-via-Canada (in an excellent post by University of Southern California graduate student Christopher Chien on how format–and so-called “surface noise” record and express diasporic movements) and the pan-Asian performances of transgender sound artist Tara Transitory (Singapore, Vietnam, and Laos, as analyzed in a moving post by Justyna Stasiowska, a PhD student at Jagiellonian University in Poland). We also began an experimental multi-part series tracing Rui Chaves‘s efforts to develop new, more context-oriented methods to archive Brazilian sound artists that will continue through early next year.
Intellectually, our themed series and forums explored–and pushed beyond–various boundaries in the cultural study of sound– challenging alleged demarcations between sound and “sense” (Karly Lynne-Scott‘s Hysterical Sound), queering distinctions between sound and touch (Airek Beauchamp‘s Sound and Affect), amplifying the sonics of ancient, seemingly-silent texts for contemporary listeners (Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman‘s Medieval Sound) and challenging distinctions of canny and uncanny in regard to the “voice” (Julie Beth Napolin‘s Sonic Shadows).
Not to be outdone, our individual posts, too pushed the study of sound toward new knowledge, perspectives, politics, and ethics. In year 7, SO! documented how recording amplifies acts of protest and makes them “multi-sited,” identified “Afecto Caribeño” across migrations of time, space, and media, remembered the sound of Public Enemy’s afro-future twenty-five years on, broadcasted live from the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference at the Library of Congress, delved into the “slow, loud, and banging” sound Paul Wall pumps out of Houston’s slabs, eulogized the sound of freedom Prince offered his listeners, questioned how “listening fits into reparative justice for the victims of sterilization,” and shouted Sandra Bland’s name, LOUD.
7.0 brought us our first regular podcaster, Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar Marcella Ernest (Phd Candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, listen to her exemplary “Finding the Lost Sounds of Kaibah” here) and two new regular writers, Robin James (Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte) and Justin Burton (Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University) both of whom think through the vexing but productive nexus between popular music and sound studies. Justin and Robin engage each other’s work in an ongoing dialogue about music, race, and gender even as they push toward diverse theoretical horizons and musical genres.
SO! continues to bring you the best, most exciting and incisive work in the field because we GO there–there in this case being conferences, concerts, art openings, receptions and other happenings–and we listen, meeting potential writers and encouraging them to become part of Team SO! and share their work with our readership. We work hard to merge the amazing technological opportunities for digital communication with the best of “IRL” camaraderie and collegiality, opening up new affective channels that nurture ideas and accountable communities.
This past year, SO! editors repped the blog in person in Toronto, ON (#2015ASA); Washington DC (#rtpf); Riverside, CA (#showprove16); Stony Brook, NY (
#periodsandwaves); Madison, WI; Los Angeles, CA; Irvine, CA; Houston, TX, New York City, NY; Albuquerque, NM, Las Vegas, NV, and Montreal, Quebec. We gave talks, checked out panels, livetweeted, co-sponsored events (hip hop concert by Sammus, anyone? YES PLEASE!), met one-on-one with graduate students, attended caucus meetings, ran for office, worked rooms, gave workshops on digital publishing, and even passed out the last (!) of our yellow-and-red stickers. In short, we hustled to be present for you and for the work, and we will continue on into year 8!
Our ongoing SO! Amplifies series really took off this year, and we took seriously the task of scouring the web to bring you truly innovative praxis in sound. It’s purpose is twofold: to increase your awareness of cool people and projects engaging sound as an active medium–listen to them! write about them! spread the word!–AND to present insight into how archivists, makers, editors, and curators understand their own work, a sort of “behind the sound” perspective into their work. This year, we brought you preservation outreach! apps + maps! hashtag projects! podcasts! archives! art exhibits!
But, wait! There’s more!
The “notes” on our Facebook page is *still the best place to hear about calls for art, calls for posts, and upcoming conferences, shows, and volumes in sound studies. “Like” us here and please continue to keep us in the loop regarding new projects. We love to signal boost!
!!!!!!! Highlight Reel!!!!!!!
See what’s new with SO! authors and community members this year (courtesy of managing editor Liana Silva). Congratulations everyone (and keep those cards, letters, and pitches coming!).
- Since contributing to Sounding Out! last fall, André Carrington’s book Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction has made its debut. He’s been doing events across the country and blogging about them at http://www.andrecarringtonphd.com. Following up on research that he presented at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference, he will be participating in the 2016-2017 Penn Humanities Forum on Translation to further a project titled “Audiofuturism: The Alchemy of Race in Radio Drama.”
- In the last year Robin James has been working on a book manuscript called The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance & Post-Identity Biopolitics. It argues many “neo-” and “post-” theories, like neoliberal political economy or new materialist posthumanism, double down on the “audiovisual litany” and use the shift from visual to sonic epistemologies to mark their supposed overcoming of modernity’s limitations. When she’s not franticly finishing that book, she’s been giving talks and interviews about her book Resilience & Melancholy, and written a lot for SO! James is already thinking about her next book project, which uses radio station WOXY/97x “The Future of Rock n Roll” to think about what the “future” of rock n roll sounded like in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, right before it slipped into a seemingly vicious cycle of retromania.
- Gretchen Jude presented earlier this year a paper on Vocaloids at the EMP Conference in Seattle (http://www.empmuseum.org/programs-plus-education/programs/pop-conference.aspx). Her submission to the !!!!!!! mixtape reflects this line of research. Next March, she will be presenting a paper in Tokyo on female vocality in early 20th century Japanese popular song (at the first International Musicology Congress in Asia). The music she’ll talk about in this second paper also appeared in her Sounding Out! soundwalk post. Her dissertation research will be supported by a UC Davis Bilinski Dissertation Year Fellowship in 2016-17.
- This year Carlo Patrão produced and debuted four documentaries about Sound and Listening for the Portuguese national radio station Antena 2 RTP, covering the themes of bioacoustics, archaeoacoustics, sonic violence, endangered soundscapes and sonification of cosmic data. Also, he participated in WFMU’s expanded radio stream Optimized!, programmed by Vicki Bennet/People Like Us. You can find out more about his radio work here: zeppelinruc.wordpress.com
- Daniel Santos recently graduated from SUNY Binghamton with highest honors after completing his thesis on the relationship between BU students and Triple Cities residents. Next week he starts a position as an associate teacher with Success Academy Charter School.
- For more information about Assistant Visual Editor Will Stabile, please visit your local library. You’ll learn about his burgeoning work in the field of comedy, and if you ask they might let you look at the microfiche.
- Liana Silva will be taking her presence to the public classroom this fall, as she becomes a high school English teacher in her new home, Houston TX. #htownvicious She continues to research Jean Grae’s music for an upcoming chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies. And of course she wouldn’t leave SO!, so you can still find her here at the blog, where she’s currently editing the series DH and Listening.
- Jennifer Stoever‘s book, The Sonic Color line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening will be published this November by New York University Press (preorder available here). She also has chapters forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies (on the importance of black women and Latina record collectors to hip hop) and in the Provoke! volume on digital sound studies (Duke UP), co-authored with Liana Silva and Aaron Trammell, a tell-all exposing exactly how much fun we all have working our asses off on this blog.
- Aaron Trammell earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in Fall 2015. He was a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California for 2015-2016. He will start as Assistant Professor of Games and Interactive Media this fall at the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.
- Neil Verma was recently appointed Assistant Professor of sound studies at Northwestern University to help run the new MA in Sound Arts and Industries. He co-edited the book Anatomy of Sound: Norman Corwin and Media Authorship, which started out as an SO! series. If you’re in Germany in October, you can catch him speaking at Radio Revolten in Germany on Oct 27.
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.
Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “!!!!!!!” mix 7.0 with track listing.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
- 2015 Blog-o-Versary 6.0 Keep on Pushing! (Our 400th post!!)
- 2014 #flawless 5.0 celebration and mix
- 2013 Blog-o-Versary 4.0: Solid Gold Summer Countdown!
- 2012 #Blog-O-Versary 3.0: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (The Awesomeness)!
- 2011 “Awesome Sounds from a Future Boombox” 2.0
- 2010 First Blog-O-Versary party mix: A Celebration of Awesomeness
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: !!!!!!! Mix
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Beyoncé, “Formation”—Regina N. Bradley & André Carrington
Mitski, “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”—Liana Silva & Chris Chien
Desi Arnaz, “Babalu”—Reina Prado
Celia Cruz, “La Vida es un Carnaval”—Dolores Inés Casillas
Audra Mae, “Jebidiah Moonshine’s Friday Night Shack Party”—Will Stabile
Skrillex And Diplo, “Febreze” (Feat. 2 Chainz)—Robin James
Desiigner, “Panda” (LUCA LUSH remix)—Justin Burton
David Bowie, “I’m Afraid of Americans”—Primus Luta
Jlin, “Black Diamond”—Mitchell Akiyama
Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”—Emma Leigh Waldron
1st Generation, “Remain Cool”—Natalia Linares
The Raincoats, “In Love”—Josh Shepperd
Lithuania, “Kill the Thing You Love”—Frank Bridges
Alma Cogan, “In the Middle of the House”—Cynthia Wang
The Books, “I Didn’t Know That”—Carlo Patrão
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, “Candy Candy”—Gretchen Ju
Saki Kabata, “Lonely Rolling Star”—Aaron Trammell
Mega Ran, “Infinite Lives” (Feat. D&D Sluggers)—Jennifer Stoever
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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EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny