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Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

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My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

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“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

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Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

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Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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SO! Reads: David Novak’s Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation

SO! Reads3We are living in strange times. Our experiences, especially our musical experiences, have become fragmented and odd. The album has been declared dead, live concerts are now silent, listened to on headphones, and some of our favorite performers exist in a faux-holographic space between life and death. The fragmentation of our musical experiences is indicative of a larger set of changes that encourage sound studies to pay attention to fragmented, outlying, and diffuse sonic phenomenon. In his new book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, part of Jonathan Sterne and Lisa Gitelman’s “Sign, Storage, Transmission” series at Duke University Press, David Novak pays attention to one such fragmented and outlying realm, Noise music. Novak’s contribution to sound studies is to encourage us to deal with the fragmented complexity of sonic environments and contexts, especially those where noise plays a crucial part.

The past decade has seen growing public attention to noise as pollution, as problem, and as a poison. Examples of noise as a social issue needing immediate response abound, but one letter to the editor from the Wisconsin Rapid Tribune epitomizes the way that noise is sometimes read as a problem to be overcome. Novak’s book is one a few recent books, including Eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense, Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters, and Joseph Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise, that complicate the idea of noise as problem. What sets Novak’s book apart from these is how his ethnographic approach allows him to approach Noise music from both the macro-perspective of its historical context and the micro-lens of his personal relationship to it.

BookCoverNoiseFor Novak, Noise music is a trans-cultural, transnational interaction that is both material and abstract. His analysis of it works to blur the boundary between both large-scale networks of exchange and the highly individuated experience. Novak relates the story of Noise music as originating in Japan in the 1980s. Noise musicians working separately caught the ears of American fans. Some of these fans were well-known musicians themselves, who brought Noise recordings and eventually the performers themselves to a wider U.S. audience. At the time, Noise was generally understood as taking one of two binary positions. Either Noise music was understood as a uniquely Japanese cultural expression, or it was instead theorized as a product of the Western imaginary motivated by the production of Japan as the anti-subject within modernity (24). Novak wisely recognizes the limited nature of these two positions, and seeks a more sophisticated method of understanding the circulation that creates Noise music, contributing, ultimately, a theory of feedback. Here the transnational circulation of materials, ideas, and expressions constitutes a culture itself, one that is not distinct from either the Japanese or the U.S. manifestations of Noise music (17). This a welcome contribution to compositional and intersectional perspectives on cultural exhange.

If Noise music is a circulation, a set of experiences and contexts, flows and scapes, ecologies and environments, then genre boundaries can not adequately describe the contextual and historical exchange of sound. Though genre must be considered, Japanoise does not find Novak searching particularly rigorously. He chooses two key Noise musicians, The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada and Merzbow from Japan and describes their historical context, reception, and influence. But other than those descriptive basics, he is unsuccessful in finding anything new to say about Noise as genre. Concluding the chapter, he casually states that the existence of Noise threatens the boundaries of other musical genres. Though this fascinating statement would have been worthy of a chapter, and certainly foundational to his central idea (that Noise music is diffuse), Novak misses an opportunity to better support these connections in his chapter on genre.

Most interesting, however, is Novak’s focus on the material conditions of the production of Noise music. In describing the diffuse flows and scapes of Noise music, he addresses a plurality of experience: from the technological to the spatial to the private dimensions of listening. These concerns put him in conversation with Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa and Julian Henriques’ Sonic Bodies. Like these scholars, Novak refuses to locate the material conditions of production as solely economic, technological, or cultural. Instead, Noise music results from of an assemblage of conditions and possibilities. This is best exemplified by how Novak distinguishes the live music experience from the recorded. Here, Novak resists the neat distinction, long established in musicology, that hears the live experience as collective and interactive, and recorded music as individuated and passive. Instead, Novak suggests “liveness” and “deadness.” Liveness and deadness are not bounded to the dichotomy of the live performance with the recording, but rather two qualities that float through and with both experiences. “Liveness is about the connection between performance and embodiment… deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences…” The experience of live Noise music, according to Novak, often challenges the boundaries of what is often expected when hearing live music. I have seen this in my own experiences standing in an audience surrounded by shrieking, booming, droning noises.

Truth be known, I’m as taken with Noise music as Novak. If his book confesses to being written by a critical but vehement fan, then I ought to confess the same of the music which I love so dearly. I had the chance to see Merzbow perform in Raleigh in August. He strummed obviously homemade instruments, turned fader pots, and concentrated intently on his laptop. A fan was crawling through the crowd on their hands and knees; occasionally they stood to sway, then returned to crawling. I thought that this behavior might seem odd, but in the context of Merzbow’s performance, it was as legitimate as any other. Through these odd behaviors, the fan demonstrated Novak’s conception of individuation within Noise music. The material conditions of the performance, the screeching Noise, made it impossible for me to ask the person what they were doing or feeling. I experienced the fan and the Noise in a tension from which there is no resolution. We were both uncomfortably located in a multiplicity of experiences. These experiences don’t resolve to a whole, but rather pulsate and echo and feed back into each other, intertwining with expectations of behavior, material conditions, and embodiment(s).

Japanoise raises many important questions. What social processes lead us to foreground the sonic experiences in our lives? And further, how does a critical understanding of these processes help to advance the work of understanding the power and politics of sound? But, for me, Novak’s work serves best to remind me of how much value is found in fragmented, diffuse, outlier experiences, like Noise music. Because sound occupies a crucial role in our social and political lives, Novak encourages us not to resolve tensions, rather to exist amongst them and hear them as lively and productive.

MerzCassette

For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the music Novak describes, the book’s website has a fantastic collection of supplemental media for you to enjoy: http://www.japanoise.com/media/.

Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.

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SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format

The promiscuity of the mp3. Borrowed from NYCArthur on Flickr.

SO! Reads3The point that had lingered with me after first reading Jonathan Sterne’s essay “The mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” was the idea that the mp3 was a promiscuous technology. “In a media-saturated environment,” Sterne writes, “portability and ease of acquisition trumps monomaniacle attention . . . at the psychoacoustic level as well as the industrial level, the mp3 is designed for promiscuity. This has been a long-term goal in the design of sound reproduction technologies” (836).  A technology, promiscuous? I did not have to look far to find support. Like germs, I could find copies of mp3s that I had downloaded from Napster in 2000 scattered across generations of my old hard drives. Often they were redundant, too – iTunes having archived a copy separate from my original download.

But, for Sterne, mp3s are also socially promiscuous. They accumulate in the hard drives of the working class and are shared, almost anywhere, through the branching left/right wires of iPod earbuds. Since the popularization of the mp3, there have been new opportunities to share how we listen with others. This is promise of the mp3, and the reason it forms such a key point of scholarly meditation.

MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012) finds Sterne revisiting many of these key themes, with a larger focus on the genealogical beginnings of the mp3 technology. While many of the book’s chapters are extrapolations of prior work Sterne has done regarding the genealogy of listening practices, this work concerns itself less with the 19th century, and more with the 20th century. Perhaps this is related to some of the methodological decisions Sterne has made in planning the book – in seeking out the genealogical origins of the mp3, Sterne worked from archives and manuals described in interviews by engineers who were fundamental to the technology’s production. As such it finds much in common with Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days and Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach but incorporates the genealogical methods regarding sonic technology present in Sterne’s earlier work The Audible Past and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity. In MP3 Sterne positions himself as a critical cultural studies scholar working between the humanities and sciences, focusing specifically on the mp3 due to its social and technological relevance today. The critical is key here as MP3 is truly a work devised to underscore the economic connections between the construction of our selves as “hearing subjects” and the media industries.

Certainly, the mp3 can still be considered a promiscuous technology, but it is corporate capitalism that had failed to recognize the extent to which it relies on technological promiscuity to support its infrastructure. This focus, ironically, displaces the mp3 as the main object of Sterne’s analysis. It highlights instead the pathological logic of corporate capitalism, and the ways that this rationality has mutated, now, in the wake of mass replicable, malleable, and iterative digital culture. In other words, the mp3 is endemic to a much larger plot, wherein the culture industries adapt to their own deus ex-machina. The naive development of the mp3 by the motion picture industry is a large part of the story here, but it is only a small bit of a much larger whole. The real story involves understanding how a handful of vested corporate interests have shaped the ways that we interpret and understand what listening is. In MP3 Sterne addresses one of the great questions of sound studies: What are the politics of listening? Or, which individuals and institutions have a vested economic interest in questions of how we hear?

Sterne recalls this drama in three parts, each unfolding in a somewhat autonomous fashion, but unified in so far as they explore the economic interests behind the scientific construction of “hearing subjects.” In the first part, Sterne is at his best exploring AT&T’s (and the affiliated Bell Laboratories’) role in funding psychological, physiological, and cybernetic research on hearing. In the second, Sterne explains how this early research has been applied to the visual and technical abstraction of sound in the 1970s. And, in the third part of this genealogy, he explains how these analogs were made digital, specifically the corporate politics which went into the construction of the mp3 standard. Throughout this surprising and detailed trajectory, Sterne makes the invisibility of corporate interests apparent and explicit.

AT&T and Infrastructure. Borrowed from djbones on Flickr.

Sterne also hints toward several powerful economic rationalities that have guided the construction of the mp3. Key among these insights is the monetization of cybernetic discourse, or the incorporation of the human body within a scientific understanding of technical systems. In order to engineer an efficient technical system, the capacities and limits of how we interact with (or serve as parts of) these systems must be taken into account. Sterne refers to this mode of engineering as “perceptual technics,” and he goes to great lengths to explain it.

Basically, at the turn of the 20th century, AT&T had taken a keen interest in the science of how people listen because they wanted to maximize the amount of simultaneous conversations broadcast through a single telephone wire. More conversations meant the purchase of fewer wires, and therefore greater profits. Eventually, drawing on the research of the oft-cited Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (within SO!: What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Nois and Pushing Record; and soundBox: Mapping Noise), AT&T recognized an economic problem of technical efficiency within their wires – there was too much ambient noise. Because of this, AT&T sought to limit the audible signal transmitted from one phone to another. This would allow for more signals (and therefore conversations) to be transmitted through the same wire. Physiological research provided clues that some frequencies were more audible than others, so engineers worked to compress audio signals to reflect this scientific abstraction of hearing.

The scientific capture of listening. Borrowed from img.informer.com .

The reduction of listening–as an embodied practice–to the quantification and control of the audible spectrum, is, in other words, the history of compression. Which, according to Sterne, should be understood as the true meaning of the mp3. While the mp3 format, like the CD or cassette, may become obsolete, technologies of compression will not. Sterne argues convincingly that most advances in compression technologies have been guided by the invisible logic of corporate capitalism. It is this exact tendency of compression–to make things smaller and more efficient–that threatened to undo the entire project of corporate and branded music distribution in the year 2000, via platforms like Napster.  Sterne is well aware of this irony throughout MP3, and uses the final chapter to discuss, briefly, the moment of cultural transformation that is defined by file-sharing and mass distribution.

Bringing things full circle with a somewhat stoic conclusion about the democratic potentials of this moment, he remarks: “The end of the artificial scarcity of recording is a moment of great potential. Its political outcome is still very much in question, but its political meaning should not be” (224). Sterne points to the globalization and ubiquity of mediated listening as a sign that things may not have changed much even though mass networked society at one point promised freedom from a commodity form which privileged things like “liberal notions of property, alienated labor, and ownership” (224). He argues that even the music industries shall persevere, mostly because people have a sublime attraction to listening and music. In other words: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There are few moments of liberation to be found within MP3; it is instead a drama of the status quo where the conspirators of corporate capitalism succeed in spite of themselves.

The ubiquity of listening. Borrowed from κεηι on Flickr.

The disparity in Sterne’s tone, when juxtaposing the nefarious and efficient dispositifs of capitalism with an untroubled and authentic construction of music is striking to say the least. And although Sterne is clear to explain that he locates his scholarship as work on a container technology (the mp3) and not its content (the music), this is a somewhat unsatisfying distinction as an embodied practice, such as listening, must take both into account. And while I agree that the mp3 reflects the promiscuity of corporate capitalism, is this challenged by the plethora of ideological nuance coded into song lyrics and arrangements? Do the corporate ideologies of the music industries flow beyond the container of the mp3 into the music itself? Is there any crosstalk, or overlap between these historical constructions? In other words, what are the limits to theorizing a container technology, and how much does the discursive path of the mp3 sculpt the content of what we listen to?

Despite, or perhaps, because of the rather dystopic scene that Sterne alludes to at the end of MP3, it falls nicely in the space between Sound Studies and Critical Information Studies. It bridges humanistic scholarship on embodied listening practices with a critique of the economic interests that have funded much of the scientific research relating to the phenomenology of sound. To that end, MP3 reveals much about the social construction of hearing and the ways that the familiar mythology of audio fidelity has been produced, discussed and exploited by several communication industries. Even though the mp3 may have been eclipsed by industry as the main object of inquiry in the eponomously titled MP3, Sterne succeeds admirably in detailing the promiscuity of corporate capitalism in the listening practices of our everyday lives.

Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.

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