Tag Archive | Charles Hirschkind

Easy Listening: Spreading and the Role of the Ear in Debating

Photo courtesy of Sounding Out! intern, Sky Stage. All rights reserved.

As I write, my institution, the University of Denver, is gearing up to host the first of the 2012 Presidential Debates. The debate promises a polite and eloquent exchanging of reasons on matters of public concerns.  This image of  “the good man [sic] speaking well,” roughly represented by Obama and Romney, pervades popular culture representations of debate. While there are certainly some forms of debate that stress public reason, like Worlds style debate, most other competitive styles of debate, look and sound very different.

American “Policy Debate,” the type of debate I will explore today, is a high school and collegiate competitive activity where two-person teams argue the merits of governmental legislation. In every round there is an affirmative that advocates an action and a negative defending the status quo, or some alternative. The debate prompts, or resolutions, change yearly and produce research collections comparable to a master’s thesis. But, it is not the research that captures newcomers’ attention. No, it is the velocity that information travels. Indeed, highly successful debaters transform their voice into a high-speed information weapon, sometimes speaking up to 400 words per minute (wpm).

Nobody really knows who decided that speaking quicker than her/his opponents would be a viable strategy. Some allege that David Seikel and Mike Miller, a dominant team from the University of Houston in the late 1960s invented the strategy. However, Miller denies this fact, insisting that the practice of speaking quickly, or “spreading,” predated their success by a couple years. While it is difficult to pin down exactly when talking becomes spreading, studies indicate passive comprehension has a threshold of around 210 wpm. Simply put, spreading is a vocal practice that propagates more arguments than an opponent can rebut, forcing the opposing team into a strategic choice of conceding and/or inadequately responding to some positions.

The NDT National Debate Champions and Runners-Up

Almost immediately after its introduction, spreading became a polarizing issue. While some alleged that speed undermined communicative argumentation, others applauded its ability to foster critical thinking. Rate of delivery became a site for what Douglas Ehninger called in 1958 the debate about debate: should debate be concerned with public reason or technical proficiency? Spreading figured prominently in these discussions because it circumscribed debate to the technical sphere, the quick pace precluding lay comprehension. As a site for cultivating what argumentation theorists Ron Greene and Darrin Hicks call “the ethical attributes required for democratic citizenship” (101), debate operates as an ideal problem space to inquire about the relationship between listening and judgment that underwrite argumentative exchanges.

Extracting meaning from a spread requires a trained ear that can delineate the nuance of tone, rhythm, code, and breathing, while translating these sounds into symbols that are then recorded onto a “flow” (a document where participants keep notes of the debate). This technical sphere of argumentation, then, requires what cultural historian Jonathan Sterne calls in The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction an “audile technique,” or a set of culturally defined listening practices. Here, spreading denotes not just rate of delivery, but encompasses a range of other practices that attend to the debate. Yoking velocity with technical proficiency, spreading requires an audile technique that attunes the ear to speed, while calibrating the viscera to quickly appraise each position espoused. Extending Sterne’s observations into an embodied theory of listening, I argue that spreading entrains visceral judgment that organizes expertise under the banner of “exchange-value,” instead of its veracity. Reflecting what Jodi Dean calls in Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive capitalism’s communicative style, I contend, audition in this case privileges flow over content.

Today, debaters are much faster than their 1960s counterparts. Take for example the championship round of this year’s (2012) National Debate Tournament (NDT). The 2012 topic debated the merits of the United States’ democracy assistance in the Middle East.

Finals – NDT 2012 Northwestern BK v Georgetown AM – 1AC + CX

In the speech linked to above, dubbed the first affirmative constructive (1AC), the speaker’s first words are easily audible, but as the seconds expire, the affirmative’s words increase in velocity; syllables collide and contort. The speaker pushes through, taking a split second to take a short, fast breath (called a clutch) before he begins his next word. To the seasoned ear, the voice is instructive; a slower, deeper tone signifying an assertion. also known as a “tag,” and a faster tempo indicating evidence. Out of this buzz, debaters’ are able to discern distinct phrases, like “Arab Spring,” “economic down turn,” and “nuclear war.” In 9 minutes the speaker outlined his advocacy, consisting of multiple scenarios for planetary extinction.

During the 1AC, the negative team is carefully listening, gathering the affirmative’s evidence, and translating the speech into symbolic shorthand, termed flowing. In addition to its purely functional use—to keep track of positions—the flow also provides third party adjudicator(s) a document to evaluate the debate.

Image of flow notes taken during a debate

After a period of questioning, the first negative speaker, linked to below, elaborates his positions: a procedural concern that the affirmative is outside the confines of the resolution; two philosophical objections (or critiques); two alternative courses of action that resolve the affirmatives exigencies, while conserving the president’s political capital, so Obama can push for Jackson-Vanik legislation; and finally direct responses to the affirmative position.

Finals – NDT 2012 Northwestern BK v Georgetown AM – 1NC + CX

Coupled with the “burden of rejoinder,” which dictates a conceded argument is a true argument, speed becomes a strategic weapon. The more positions, the more likely one will be missed, granting the other team an advantage. For example, failure to address the negative’s concerns about the Jackson-Vanik legislation means that the affirmative position would result in a US-Russian nuclear war culminating in extinction and probably losing the affirmative the debate. Even less dire claims exert force in the round. For instance, missing the relatively innocuous claim that Obama does not have political capital abrogates the negative’s whole Jackson-Vanik position. After all, what would be the point of Obama conserving capital, if he has none to begin with?

Debating thus requires a refined ear capable of quickly determining a argument’s merit, while allotting the proper amount of attention. If a claim is deemed irrelevant, the debater can focus on a more relevant position, keeping her/his ear piqued for beginning of the next position.

Debate team members listening to the flow at a 2009 Tournament at University of the Pacific; Image by Flickr User Inkyhack

This confluence of speed, evidence, time constraints, and a burden of rejoinder cultivates an instrumental relationship to expertise. Media theorist Jayson Harsin suggests in “The Rumour Bomb: Theorising the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics” that these “conditions encourage a relationship of viewer to text (slogan, soundbite, fragment) which is essentially fiduciary, based on trust, not critical understanding”(101). Indeed, time constraints coupled with a proliferation of positions,  produces a sound to listener relationship, where the veracity is assumed and significance is dictated by strategies, not the least of which is vocal. This is because there is simply not enough time to evaluate the credibility of each piece of evidence read. Patrick Speice and Jim Lyle, two debate coaches, explain that “Debaters have to be focused on the arguments being offered, have to be able to understand them very quickly, and they have to be able to discern which arguments are of the greatest significance for the round.” Evidence, then, is reorganized along a strategic continuum—the more likely an argument may help or hinder a team’s chances of winning, the more important it becomes. This can precipitate a “race to the margins,” where one side tries to find an obscure argument to beat back more probable analysis. This is not to say that one kind of argument is better than the other. But, the rationality used to organize the evidence relegates veracity to the epiphenomenal. This fosters an epistemic leveling, indexing expertise according to its exchange-value.

The repetitive nature of debate inscribes these listening habits into the body, shaping future interaction. Writing on the pious ear, cultural anthropologist Charles Hirschkind explains in The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, “patterns of sensory attunement configured through continuous practice of such a listening constitute an intensifying perceptual background for […]ethical agency and public reason”(28). Similarly, the practice of listening to debate rounds, along with the movement of the hands, quickness of thought, and so on are burned into an affective substrate, defining the horizons of future action. That is, through the repetition of debates, audile technique is entrained into motor memory, residing just below the conscious register of thought, acting as a potentiality. Most often, this listening technique is activated in the next debate round, the spread’s distinctive sound generating an anamnestic effect, activating the policy debate ear.

In sum, spreading proffers an audile technique concerned with the exchange-value of evidence, where the “best claim” is the one that wins the round. It entrains a technical mode of audition, aiding the debater in making quick decisions. This listening style underwrites a knowledge economy, where expertise becomes just another commodity that is bought, sold, and traded to support pre-formulated opinions. “Under communicative capitalism,” Jodi Dean writes, “an excess of polls, surveys, and assessments circulates, undercutting not only the efficacy of any particular poll or survey but the conditions of possibility for knowledge and credibility as such. There is always another survey, done by another group or association with whatever bias and whatever methodology, displacing whatever information one thought one had” (103).

Justin Eckstein is a doctoral candidate and former director of debate at the University of Denver. His work explores the intersection of listening, affect, and argumentation. Justin’s writing has appeared in Argumentation & Advocacy, Relevant Rhetoricand Argumentation in ContextCurrently, he is writing his dissertation on the micropolitics of podcasting in the post-deliberative moment.

Beat-ification: British Muslim Hip Hop and Ethical Listening Practices

As the beat drops for our latest Live from the SHC postCornell’s Society for the Humanities Fellow Jeanette Jouili hits us with some (social) science, sharing her ethnographic research on Muslim Hip Hop in pious communities in Britain.  To give earlier installments by Damien KeaneTom McEnaneyJonathan Skinner, and Eric Lott another spin, click here. Next week, the needle comes to the end of the groove for the “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politicscrew as Society Director Tim Murray takes us on home. Good thing Sounding Out! can’t stop, won’t stop. . . –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)

Can Hip Hop sound Islamic? And conversely, can one listen to Hip Hop in a Muslim way? What is at stake when a contemporary musical form like Hip hop (or rock or punk) is introduced into the catalogue of recognized Islamic music genres? What impact do these genres have on longstanding Islamic traditions of ethical listening? In the process of creating new genres of Islamic music, which have not been previously connected to Muslim music traditions, norms are negotiated, border zones are walked upon, limits explored. At the same time, these Islamic music practitioners, even those who push established artistic limits within the Islamic movement, nevertheless intend to uphold the initial ethical project.

Considering music as producing sensual pleasure or extreme emotional excitement, Muslim scholars throughout the ages have been concerned with its capacity to hinder the exercise of reason and self-mastery as well as with its promises for spiritual benefit.  Roughly, one can say that those who have opposed the practice of listening to music feared that music’s force arouses worldly passions which distract from the remembrance of God, whereas those who were favourable toward this practice – generally speaking these voices came from thinkers and practitioners of the Islamic mystical traditions  –highlighted music’s capacity to impel the believer to seek the spiritual world while simultaneously being attentive to its potential dangers. Among these two sides, there is a wide range of theological opinions, from those that prohibit any kind of musical singing (considering Qu’ran recitation and poetry recitation not in terms of the category music) as well as all musical instruments, to those that allow for singing and certain musical instruments (i.e. drums permitted, stroke instruments not), and those who allow for all the array of musical expressions (given that specific moral conditions are fulfilled).

If the evolution of Islamic music toward the incorporation of modern music traditions has already been controversial within many Islamic revival contexts, it is not exaggerated to claim that Hip hop, at least in the UK, is probably the most contested and is until now the most marginalized of the different music genres within the Islamic popular culture scene. Today’s British Muslim Hip Hop is an occasion to think about the struggles of young Muslims to incorporate a music tradition that epitomizes black music culture like no other contemporary genre into the larger frame of Islamic music in Britain, which has been largely associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern music traditions.

Rakin and Ismael of Hip Hop Duo Mecca 2 Medina, Image Courtesy of M2M

Muslim Hip Hop takes many different sonic and stylistic directions in the UK. Some artists advance their Muslim identity in the context of religion and others take a more political standpoint; many blend both to varying degrees.  What connects these diverse orientations is the critique of contemporary mainstream commercial Hip Hop. Many Muslim Hip Hop fans and artists see this music as little more than a glorification of materialism and sexism. The thriving Muslim Hip Hop scene in the UK, which is deeply influenced by Afro-Caribbean converts to Islam, clearly situates itself in continuity with early Hip Hop, as defined by black awareness, political messages, and an underlying Islamic identity. Their own engagement in Islamic Hip hop is thus seen as holding true to the ‘authentic’ Hip hop traditions by purifying a corrupted Hip hop and renewing and reconnecting it to its Islamic identity.

While Aki Nawaz’ FUN-DA-MENTAL were Muslim Hip Hop pioneers in early nineties British hip hop, it was notably Mecca 2 Medina which opened the doors for Muslim rappers in the reticent U.K. Muslim community. Currently, the Mozambique-born rapper Mohammed Yahya, the female rap duo Poetic Pilgrimage, the sisters from Pearls of Islam, Muslim Belal, and Rakin Niass (formerly of Mecca 2 Medina)  headline many urban Muslim cultural events in Britain. Lowkey and Jaja Soze are two well-established names in the UK Hip hop scene who are also present within the more subcultural Muslim scene.

Lowkey, Image by Flickr User The Girl 78

The Islamic Hip hop scene in Great Britain struggles to find a way to bring the tradition of Hip Hop in line with Islamic traditions, molding it to conform to Islam’s ethics of listening and sonic practices. Hip Hop can be especially problematic (from a certain Islamic point of view) because danceability is usually one of its prime objectives. The sensual dance style instigated by Hip Hop is notably achieved through amplified bass and repetitive beats that often drown the vocals.  British Muslim Hip hop artists emphasize, however, that it is not so much the beats, but the spoken word art that connects Hip Hop to the sonic-linguistic practices of Islam’s pronounced oral tradition. A minority of rappers (for instance, Muslim Belal) adhere to a specific Islamic interpretation according to which music instruments are forbidden, and therefore use no instrumentals, only human voices as background music. But the large majority of Muslim artists, including those who are outspokenly religious, do use instrumentation. Yet, a fine line seems to exist where beats begin transmuting into “nightclub” sounds. While neither clearly defined, nor necessarily articulated by the artists themselves, Muslim artists nonetheless avoid this musical point of no return so as not to marginalize the spoken word. Jaja Soze’s “Just Like Me” is a good example of such sonic practice. Soze plans to do exclusively spoken word in the future.

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Notably, according many Muslim Hip Hop artists in the UK, Hip Hop invokes important similarities with forms of recited or sung poetry, practices which were so cherished in the early Islamic community. For all these artists, reconciling Islam with Hip hop means recentering the spoken art form by sonically emphasizing the voice and the words. Thus, Islamic Hip hop is stylistically related to spoken word poetry, which frequently critiques the camouflaging of Hip hop lyrics behind beats. The lyrical content is also reflective of an Islamic ethic, often weaving explicitly pious Islamic themes with politically and socially conscious lyrics. Racism, Islamophobia, Neo-Liberalism and Imperialism in the age of the Global War on Terror are constant themes, as are critiques of the gang violence faced by minority communities in England’s major cities and cultural practices connected to the countries of origins of Muslim immigrants. “Silence is Consent,” from Poetic Pilgrimage, a female Hip Hop and Spoken Word duo and one of the few Muslim female Hip Hop artists in the UK highlights such socially conscious lyrics.

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Lowkey’s lyrics in “Terrorist?” are an especially strident  critique of the War on Terror:

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Far from constituting a vital unit with the lyrics (as is otherwise commonly assumed for Hip hop), beats and musical instrumentation are often treated as dispensable in Muslim Hip Hop. Even the artists who use instrumentation regularly perform their pieces a cappella on events that do not allow music instruments; many artists even offer their CDs in two versions: one with and one without instrumentation. Also, many artists switch easily from spoken poetry to Hip hop (the same lyrics can be performed, depending on the demands, as a spoken word or a Hip hop/rap piece), as they consider spoken poetry to be an intrinsic part of the broader Hip hop culture.

Such considerations are in line with Islamic traditions of listening, with their strong concern for listening to the voice and to the word. Listening to voices and words that carry spiritual and sacred contents or disseminate more broadly positive messages is reasoned through the paradigmatic experience of Qur’an recitation. The invocation of “beautification” (translated literally from the Arabic term tajweed, which refers to Qur’an recitation) has become a common trope among the British Muslim Hip Hop artists I have interviewed in order to defend their artistic activity (whether pertaining to voice and instruments or only to their vocal skills). As in Quran recitation, “beautification” is employed here as a tool to facilitate the reception and to reinforce the affective impact of the word.  “Clarity” by Rakin Niass, who started rapping with the British rap group Cash Crew and is one of the founding members of Mecca 2 Medina, clearly promotes a moral life style.

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Hip hop, if it wants to be considered  legitimate within an Islamic context, must enable an ethical listening. Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape (2006) argues that listening in Islamic traditions, is “not a spontaneous and passive receptivity but a particular kind of action itself, a listening that is a doing” (34). It represents a form of active listening that involves both the intellect and the senses, promoting a specific way of being in the world. Consequently, I consider contemporary genres like Muslim Hip Hop, however modernized it might sound, does still bear the imprint of earlier da’wa traditions, encouraging an  virtuous life for listeners, and cultivating necessary ethical and political sensibilities through the ear.

These new musical styles are not only reflective of new sensibilities and subjectivities, they are, as notes Jean-Luc Nancy in Listening (2007), productive of subjectivity. It is for this reasoning that one should not underestimate the significance of the evolving music genres within the Islamic revival movement. Listening carefully to them will therefore provide crucial keys for understanding the possibilities for the development of specific ethical projects within a global mass culture.

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Featured Image Credit: Poetic Pilgrimage, B Supreme 2011 © 2011 Paul Hampartsoumian

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Jeanette S. Jouili is a 2011-2012 fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities.  She has also held a Postdoctoral position at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at Amsterdam University where she did research on the (pious) Islamic cultural and artistic scene in France and the UK. In 2007, she received her PhD jointly from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris (France) and the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder (Germany). Jeanette has published in various journals including Feminist Review, Social Anthropology, and Muslim World. She is currently completing a book manuscript based on the material of her PhD dissertation provisionally titled Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in France and Germany. Jeanette’s research and teaching interests include Islam in Europe, Islamic revivalism, secularism, pluralism, popular culture, moral and aesthetic practices, and gender.

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