When the narrator of the Old English poem Exodus declares “Gehyre se ðe wille” (Let him hear who will), what sounds is he asking us to attend to? [Note: Text from Peter Lucas’s edition, 7b. All translations are author’s own.] This post argues that the Old English noun cirm (noise, shout, outcry) challenges our conceptualization of noise. In the Anglo-Saxon corpus, cirm most often refers to the indistinguishable, non-linguistic hum of a crowd, rather than the meaningful utterance of an individual. This accords with the popular view of noise in sound studies: whether medieval or modern, noise (as opposed to meaningful sound) is associated with alterity, disruption, and violence.
However, and strikingly, in the Old English Exodus, words for noise describe not only the terrible sounds of the drowning Egyptians as the roaring waters of the Red Sea rush over them, but also the survival of the Israelites. I argue that this cirm is a mark of the Israelites’ triumphal assertion of their continued presence and plenitude, a celebration of the fact that they can still be a multitude despite captivity. That cirm may not sit easily within our definition of noise should provoke not a redefinition of cirm’s joyful use, but a reconceptualization of Anglo-Saxon noise.
What is Noise?
“Noise” has a range of meanings, but most often implies “unwanted sound” as R. Murray Schafer argues in The Soundscape (73). Following the work of Jacques Attali and Jeffrey J. Cohen, noise has been associated with alterity, difference, and monstrosity. Noise, as opposed to sound, may be non-linguistic or disordered: nonsense, babble, the roar of a jet engine. According to David Novak’s contribution to Keywords in Sound, noise is not present in nature, but is created by modern technology (129). In the modern world, noise is often considered negative: cities have rules about noise pollution, apartment buildings set quiet hours, and airplane passengers don noise-cancelling headphones. In the pre-industrial age, noise was not exempt from criticism, though the word could also be applied to more pleasant sounds, like birdsong.
In the European Middle Ages, Valerie J, Allen argues in “Broken Air,” noise was often figured as violent, transgressing boundaries, inappropriately closing the distance between sound producer and sound receiver (310 and 317-318). According to Macrobius, it was not silence that was the opposite of sound, but noise (311). Grammar, which was “devoted to the pursuance of ratio through sound,” was ethical; noise was therefore considered “a kind of audible violence; corruption [wa]s something one can hear” (305). But some medieval noises were more ambiguous: the Old English word dream (joy, joyful sound) could also be applied to the terrible sounds of Hell or the terror of Judgment Day, as in Kazutomo Karasawa’s analysis in “OE dream for Horrible Noise in the Vercelli Homilies.” Likewise, “clamor,” which originated as a (mostly) negative noise, became an important legal instrument, as discussed by Richard Barton in “Making a Clamor to the Lord: Noise, Justice and Power in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century France.” But in general, we tend to assume medieval noise is negative, or marks its producer as other.
Noises in Exodus
The Old English Exodus, found in the c. 1000 manuscript known as Bodleian MS Junius 11, is a notoriously difficult and complex poetic adaptation of the Old Testament Exodus 12-14. The author and date of composition are unknown, though it is often considered quite early, perhaps as early as the eighth century as Paul Remley and Lucas argue. Few institutions were rich enough to own a complete Bible. The author of Exodus may have had access to a written Latin version of Exodus, or may have been exposed to the text via the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Easter Vigil.
Exodus delights in sensory details, but until recently, I had always thought of Exodus as primarily visual – the gleaming of war-gear, the glittering of Egyptian spoils washed up on the shore, tents and a pillar of cloud to protect the Israelites from the desert sun, and a pillar of fire to guide them. But the poet is also attentive to the larger sensory world, including the world of sound and noise. Those who accept the poet’s opening challenge to his audience (“Gehyre se ðe wille!” [Let him hear who will!]) will recognize that the poem is in fact filled with sounds – the battle trumpets that provide order and structure to the movements of the army, the rushing and later silencing of waters, the terrible evening songs of wolves eager for battle, the awful rasping of the blade Abraham draws to sacrifice Isaac in the poem’s digression on the patriarchs, the triumphant songs produced by Israelite men and women in praise of God after the Egyptians are defeated. In what follows, I focus on the multiple deployments of a single word for noise (cirm), applied to both Israelites and Egyptians, asking what this word can reveal about Anglo-Saxon conceptions of noise.
It has often been remarked that the poet resists easy distinctions between Israelites and Egyptians, applying similar vocabulary to both, and this is certainly illustrated by the poet’s sonic play. In a climactic scene near the end of the poem, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is accompanied by horrible noises:
Storm up gewat
heah to heofonum, herewopa mæst;
laðe cyrmdon (lyft up geswearc)
fægum stæfnum. Flod blod gewod:
randbyrig wæron rofene, rodor swipode
meredeaða mæst. Modige swulton,
cyningas on corðre. Cyrm swiðrode
wæges æt ende; wigbord scinon.
[A storm went up high to the heavens, the greatest of cries of the army; the hostile ones cried out with doomed voices (the air grew dark above). Blood pervaded the water: ramparts were broken, the greatest of sea-deaths lashed the sky. The brave ones died, kings in a troop. The noise fell silent at the end of the water; battle-boards shone. (460b-467; emphasis added)]
Cirm occurs twice in this passage, first as a verb (cyrmdon) and then as a noun (cyrm). The manuscript reading in 466b is cyre (choice). Lucas emends to cyrm because cyre is not a poetic word, and I would argue that the echo with the Israelites’ cyrm (107) must be deliberate. Even if we accept MS cyre, the passage still includes the verb cyrmdon (462a), and other sonic vocabulary (herewopa, “army’s cries” , and fægnum stefnum, “doomed voices” ). The noun occurs roughly 60 times in the corpus; the verb 17 times (DOE).
In the Old English corpus, cirm is often negative, applied to the tortures of hell or the terror of Judgment Day, and indicates a particularly loud sound (DOE, Lucas). According to the DOE, the noun means “shout, cry, shriek” or “noise of non-human origin, clamour.” The Egyptian cirm is obviously threatening, the meaningless cries of men who, like a raging storm, lash out in terror as the waters close over their heads. Even the visual horror of blood mingling with water maintains sonic affiliations: this line is a rare example of internal rhyme in Old English poetry (flod blod gewod). The end of the Egyptian threat is marked by the silencing of their voices and cirm, metaphorically a silencing of the army’s advance against the Israelites.
Given the negative associations with noise in both medieval and modern sound theory, that the Egyptian defeat is accompanied by their terrible cirm may not seem particularly surprising. Strikingly, this is not the only such noise in the poem. Near the beginning of the poem, the Israelites celebrate their initial escape from Egypt by producing not just any noise, but cirm. On the third day, after the pillar of cloud has appeared, the Israelites awaken with trumpets, and seeing the pillar,
Folc wæs on salum,
hlud herges cyrm.
[The people were joyful, loud was the noise of the army. (106b-107a; emphasis added)]
If cirm is threatening, loud noise, associated with difference and violence, why would the Israelites produce it? I would like to suggest that cirm suggests not merely loud noise, but crowd noise. The Israelites’ cirm is not an assertion of difference, or the meaningless babble of a drowning, almost non-human army, but an assertion of triumphant plenitude. Their joyful cirm is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, which the poet will remind us of later in the poem (435-442). Just as God promised Abraham innumerable offspring, his support of the Israelites in their exodus signals that they will continue to be a multitude (as they certainly are in this battle, in which they have 600,000 fighting men (224-233).
In fact, the Israelites’ triumphant crowd noise is echoed at the end of the poem as well. After the defeat of the Egyptians, who make terrible cirm as they perish in the Red Sea (460b-467), the Israelites issue more celebratory sound, this time transformed from crowd noise to harmonious music:
Æfter þam wordum – werod wæs on salum –
sungon sigebyman (segnas stodon),
[After these words – the troop was joyful – victorious trumpets sang a beautiful sound (battle-standards stood). (565-67a; emphasis added)]
The Israelites’ cirm (107), which they produced while on salum (joyful), is balanced and echoed by the celebratory sounds of the end of the poem, also produced by a people who are on salum (565). Whatever threat the Israelites’ assertion of plenitude and cirm may have made possible is mitigated by replacing that cirm (noise) with a beautiful sound (fægerne sweg), a harmonious, if also loud and multiple, expression.
According to Attali, music can be used to produce order, but “noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder” (26). In this sense, the Israelites’ crowd noise in the desert is violent – it threatens the order of the Egyptians, or the hierarchy the Egyptians have sought to impose on the Israelites in their captivity. But because this story ends in the triumph of the Israelites, told from the point of view of their Christian descendants, it celebrates this assertion of communal power and communal violence without fully othering them. The true violence is inflicted on the Egyptians by God in the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to reassert their normativity, their cohesion, their power, and their non-otherness. While the drowning Egyptians produce cirm, it is silenced because the cirm of the Israelites has conquered them. Noise, or at least cirm, is therefore not merely negative or disruptive; it is a powerful claim to be blessed by God, an assertion of belonging rather than a boundary crossing.
Featured Image:Detail of a miniature of the plague of hail (Exodus 9:22-25), Add MS 15277, f. 7r
Jordan Zweck is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in early medieval vernacular literature and culture, especially Old English, and is interested in documentary culture, media studies, and sound studies. She is currently completing a book on Anglo-Saxon epistolarity and early English media, examining the representation of letters in vernacular texts such as letters from heaven, hagiography, and poetry. She is also working on a second book on sound, noise, and silence in Anglo-Saxon England, a portion of which is forthcoming in Exemplaria. Zweck is a recipient of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities’ First Book Award, has held a resident fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at UW-Madison, and has won several teaching awards.
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Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org.
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Although this year’s American Studies Association conference location is not as warm and sunny as last year’s (can we have all November conferences in warm, sunny places, please?), Washington DC has a lot to offer this year’s conference attendees. The title for this year’s annual meeting, which takes place from November 21 to November 24, 2013, is “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent.” The focus on debt in all of its dimensions couldn’t be more timely, considering that the conference comes on the heels of a government shutdown that the United States is still getting over, in addition to formal and informal conversations about recovery. In this sense, Washington DC seems an ideal setting for the topic: it’s the center of many of these national conversations about debt.
It is no surprise then that, according to the co-chairs of this year’s programming committee, Roderick Ferguson, Lisa Lowe and Jodi Melamed, many of the panels chosen for this year’s ASA revolve around keywords such as “debt, obligation, ethics, collectivity, and dissent.” The focus on such topics may explain why there are less panels and papers that fall under Sound Studies. The connection between debt and sound may not be immediately apparent for some, which may either keep panels or papers that focus on sound out of the conversation. It may also be the case that the overall topic may not immediately resonate for those who work on or write about sound matters. Sound Studies is still staking its claim, loud and clear. For example, bright and early at 8:00 am on Thursday, November 21st, there’s the Sonic Lives of Debt panel, which looks at how debt is represented in music and sound in general. Another highlight from Thursday is one of two American Studies Journal panels, titled Chocolate Spaceship: Gender Politics and Afro-Futurism in Funk, with papers on Patti Labelle, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Roger Troutman.
For artists and scholars of Sound Studies, the conference theme summons Jacques Attali’s famed text, Noise: The Political Economy of Music. His theoretical arguments about music as an audible mirror of capitalism, a structured representation of noise, and a means of understanding “debt” through sound, serve as an academic companion to this year’s lineup of panels and papers that address sound. Some sound-related panels complicate ideas of “dissent” and “debt.” Sonic Ledgers of Dissent (Saturday, 4:00-5:45 pm), chaired by Deborah R. Vargas, focuses on dissent addresses not only the State (FBI), but also gay rapper Caushun, racial musical miscegenation, and Black/Brown alliances in Los Angeles.
However, it’s not just a matter of the connection of the theme with sound. Last year, SO! Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman pointed out in her ASA 2012 conference round-up that there were less sound studies panels than other years, and suggested that this turn may indicate that the field is entering a moment of reflection. Stoever-Ackerman rightfully argues that academic presentations related to Sound Studies are moving beyond making the presence of the field known and moving toward engaging with sound on a deeper, more complicated level. Consider how some of the panels listed below may not be precisely about sound studies, but include a sound-oriented approach. The panel Debts of Spirit and Substance includes a paper that looks at songs of protest: Glenda Goodman’s “Unsung Songs of the ‘Swinish Multitude’: Transnational Tunes of Eighteenth-Century Political Protest.” Another example is Sunday’s Latinas/os Onscreen and On/Off Air: Rethinking Contemporary Media Audiences and Discourses panel, which includes a presentation by Dolores Inés Casillas titled “Lost in Translation: The Politics of Spanish-language Radio Ratings.” It is encouraging to see how cultural critiques also include sound as a way to analyze and understand cultural phenomena.
The ASA Sound Studies Caucus is bringing it this year with three panels that carry the caucus’s stamp of approval. The three panels (two on Friday and one on Saturday) address questions of listening, recording, and memory. The Friday panel at 2:30, chaired by Nicole Hodges Persley, is titled Sampling Phonographies: Sonic Memory and the Long History of Sampling and stars two SO! contributors: Gustavus Stadler (“Charles Chesnutt, Sonic Memory, and Racial Terror”) and Meghan Drury (“Across Time and Space: Hearing Sun Ra’s Egypt”). Each of the papers on this panel discuss the intimate relationship between music’s ritual of sampling and racial memory. That 2:30 presentation is immediately followed by Musical Debts: Appropriations, Reparations, or New Traditions?, chaired by Barry Shank. Shank participated in this year’s cross-blog (and only!) virtual IASPM-US Conference panel on popular music and Sound Studies, Sonic Borders Virtual Panel. Musical Debts explores how music trespasses across racialized, global boundaries for capitalist gains. On Saturday, you can catch the last of the SSC panels, on listening and community: Connected Listening: Re-imagining Community Through Sound. Chaired by Michelle Habell-Pallan, the papers in that panel delve into the role of listening for communities of color.
If you can’t make any of the sound studies panels, make sure to check out the ASA Sound Studies Caucus+Journal of Popular Music Studies Happy Hour Meet and Greet on Friday, November 22, 2013. We’re big fans of the work going on at JPMS, and we’re thrilled to see them partner up with the Sound Studies Caucus. The Caucus’s co-conveners, Roshanak Kheshti, Deb Vargas, SO!’s own Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman and D. Ines Casillas, welcome colleagues equally steeped in topic of sound to help build this important caucus. From the get go, this Caucus has set out to not only bring scholars together under the umbrella of sound but to also push ideas of gender, race, and sexuality as integral components of Sound Studies. Sadly, the editorial crew of SO! will not be present for this year’s SSC Happy Hour, but be sure to swing by and meet some of our guest writers who will be at Glen’s Garden Market from 5:30 to 7:00 pm!
Lastly, if you are not presenting at ASA, not attending the conference, or simply want to check in on the action, take a glance at the official Twitter hashtag #2013ASA . Hopefully we’ll get to meet you at the next ASA meeting: Los Angeles, 2014!
Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after ASA 2013. If we somehow missed you or your panel in this round up, please let our Managing Editor know!: firstname.lastname@example.org
This post was co-authored. Liana M. Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!. Dolores Inés Casillas is Assistant Professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara this fall. She writes and teaches on Latino media, language politics, and sound practices.
Featured photo: “Stormy Salute” by Flickr user Joey Gannon, CC BY-SA 2.0
8:00 am – 9:45 am
004. Debts of Spirit and Substance
Washington Hilton, C – Cardozo (T)
CHAIR: Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
James Deutsch, Smithsonian Institution (DC)
In Debt to The Poor of New York: Dion Boucicault and the Panics of 1837/1857
Gino Conti, University of Southern California (CA)
Oh, I feel, I feel, I feel: Moravians, Wasted Labor, and the Afterlives of Enthusiasm
Glenda Goodman, University of Southern California (CA)
Unsung Songs of the “Swinish Multitude”: Transnational Tunes of Eighteenth-Century Political Protest
Tanja Aho, State University of New York, Buffalo (NY)
Wives and/as Debt: Women’s Lived Dissent in the Eighteenth Century
COMMENT: Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
007. Sonic Lives of Debt
Washington Hilton, F1 – Fairchild West (T)
CHAIR: Alexandra Theresa Vazquez, Princeton University (NJ)
Ray Allen, City University of New York, Brooklyn College (NY)
Holy Ground: Woody Guthrie’s Unsung Lyrics
Elliott H. Powell, New York University (NY)
Sampling among the Margins: Hip Hop, Indian Film Music, and the Sonic Life of Debt
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
Sound Nation Empire: Emory Cook’s “Sounds of Our Times”
Mark Krasovic, Rutgers University, Newark (NJ)
Steve Reich’s “Come Out” and the Sound of Evidence in the Long Hot Summers
COMMENT: Alexandra Theresa Vazquez, Princeton University (NJ)
014. Televising Multiculturalism and its Discontents
Washington Hilton, Georgetown East (C)
CHAIR: Sharon M. Leon, George Mason University (VA)
Allison McCracken, DePaul University (IL)
Blind Auditions and Vocal Politics: Enacting and Exposing Vocal Essentialism on NBC’s The Voice
Janani Subramanian, Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IN)
Mindy Kaling and Television Multiculturalism
Gregory Zinman, Georgia Institute of Technology (GA)
Nam June Paik and the Aesthetics of Interventionist Media
COMMENT: Sharon M. Leon, George Mason University (VA)
10:00 am – 11:45 am
019. Nineteenth-Century Public Lecturing, New Media, and Technologies of Orality
Washington Hilton, D – Du Pont (T)
CHAIR: Thomas Augst, New York University (NY)
Carolyn Eastman, Virginia Commonwealth University (VA)
Speechless: America’s First Celebrity Orator and the Origins of Nineteenth-Century Platform Culture
Granville Ganter, Saint John’s University (NY)
Anne Laura Clarke, Lecturer on History, 1822–1835
Tom F. Wright, University of Sussex (United Kingdom)
How Silence Spoke for Lucy Parsons
COMMENT: Thomas Augst, New York University (NY)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
048. Song, Screen, Stomach: Cultural Debt and Transnational Italian Americanism
Washington Hilton, D – Du Pont (T)
CHAIR: Grace Hale, University of Virginia (VA)
Joseph Sciorra, City University of New York, Queens College (NY)
“Core ‘ngrato,” a Wop Song: Mediated Renderings and Diasporic Musings
Benjamin Cawthra, California State University, Fullerton (CA)
Under the Volcano: Gordon Parks, the Bergman-Rossellini Romance, and Postwar U.S.-Italian Relations
John Gennari, University of Vermont (VT)
The Knife and the Bread, the Brutal and the Sacred: Family Trauma and Retaliatory Gastronomy in Louise DeSalvo’sCrazy in the Kitchen
COMMENT: Grace Hale, University of Virginia (VA)
050. American Studies Journal: Chocolate Spaceship: Gender Politics and Afro-Futurism in Funk
Washington Hilton, F1 – Fairchild West (T)
CHAIR: Randal Maurice Jelks, University of Kansas (KS)
Tammy Kernodle, Miami University of Ohio (OH)
Deconstructing the Groove: Meshell Ndegeocello and the Politics of Funk in Post–Civil Rights America
Francesca T. Royster, DePaul University (IL)
Labelle: Funk, Afrofuturism, Feminism and the Politics of Flight and Fight
Scot Brown, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
Roger Troutman and Blues Afrofuturism
COMMENT: Randal Maurice Jelks, University of Kansas (KS)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
077. Transpacific Dissent
Washington Hilton, Monroe (C)
CHAIR: Yu-Fang Cho, Miami University of Ohio (OH)
Chris Suh, Stanford University (CA)
Beyond the Logic of International Indemnity: How an American-educated Korean Became an Anti-American Leader
Fritz Schenker, University of Wisconsin, Madison (WI)
Imperial Producers: Filipino Jazz Musicians in 1920s Colonial Asia
Elizabeth Son, Northwestern University (IL)
Monuments of Dissent: Transpacific Memorializations of Sexual Slavery and Social Justice Struggles
Jennifer Sun Kwak, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
Spam, Sex Work, and U.S. Militarism: Consumption and Conscriptions of Empire in Nora Okja Keller’s Fox Girl
COMMENT: Yu-Fang Cho, Miami University of Ohio (OH)
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2013
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
144. Caucus – Sound Studies: Sampling Phonographies: Sonic Memory and the Long History of Sampling
Washington Hilton, Columbia Hall 9 (T)
CHAIR: Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas (KS)
Gustavus Stadler, Haverford College in Pennsylvania (PA)
Charles Chesnutt, Sonic Memory, and Racial Terror
Alexander William Corey, University of Colorado, Boulder (CO)
Collaborative Sampling: The John Coltrane Quartet’s Favorite Thing
Meghan Drury, George Washington University (DC)
Across Time and Space: Hearing Sun Ra’s Egypt
Jack Hamilton, Harvard University (MA)
Making Beats, Making Wakes: Loss, Memory, and Style in the Music of RZA and DJ Premier
COMMENT: Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas (KS)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
160. Caucus – Sound Studies: Musical Debts: Appropriations, Reparations, or New Traditions?
Washington Hilton, Columbia Hall 9 (T)
CHAIR: Barry Shank, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
Kirstie Dorr, University of California, San Diego (CA)
Sumanth Gopinath, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (MN)
Roshanak Kheshti, University of California, San Diego (CA)
COMMENT: Jonathan Sterne, McGill University (Canada)
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2013
8:00 am – 9:45 am
180. Caucus – Early America Matters: Commons Democracy
Washington Hilton, F1 – Fairchild West (T)
CHAIR: Dana Nelson, Vanderbilt University (TN)
Joanna Brooks, San Diego State University (CA)
Why We Left: Archives of Common Memory, Martial Power, and Peasant-Class Anglo-American Communities
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Northeastern University (MA)
Performative Commons in the Atlantic World
Melissah Pawlikowski, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
Endeavors for The Common Good: The Communitarian Foundation of Frontier Republicanism and the Populist Push West
COMMENT: Dana Nelson, Vanderbilt University (TN)
181. Repudiating Debt Across the Americas: Latinidades, Embodied Performance, and the Archive as Site of Contestation
Washington Hilton, F2 – Fairchild East (T)
CHAIR: Ernesto Javier Martínez, University of Oregon (OR)
Magdalena Barrera, San Jose State University (CA)
Refusing Pedagogical Debts: Mexican Women in the Verbal and Visual Archives of Americanization
Laura G. Gutiérrez, University of Arizona (AZ)
Sell Your Love Steep: Prostitution, Indebtedness, and other Transnational Transactions in Rumbera Iconography
Marisol Negron, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
Tributo a “El Cantante”: The Making and Unmaking of Héctor LaVoe’s Abjection
Micaela Díaz-Sánchez, Mount Holyoke College (MA)
From the Page to the Stage and Screen: Queer Chicana Cultural Production, Spectatorship, and Community
COMMENT: Ernesto Javier Martínez, University of Oregon (OR)
193. American Studies Journal: Groove Theory: Funk, Feminism, and Afro-Beat
Washington Hilton, Monroe (C)
CHAIR: Deborah Whaley, University of Iowa (IA)
Nikki A. Greene, Wellesley College (MA)
Don’t Call Her No Tramp: The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis and Renée Stout
Tony Bolden, University of Kansas (KS)
Groove Theory: A Vamp on the Epistemology of Funk
Alex Stewart, University of Vermont (VT)
Funky Drummer: Fela Kuti, James Brown, and the Invention of Afrobeat
COMMENT: Deborah Whaley, University of Iowa (IA)
12:00 pm – 1:45 pm
222. ASA Artist in Residence Ricardo Dominguez: Disturbance Research Lab: Digital Disobedience (Practicum)
Washington Hilton, International Ballroom West (C)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
246. ASA Women’s Committee: Critical Conjunctures of Debt: Women of Color, Healthcare Disparities, and Advocacy
Washington Hilton, Jefferson West (C)
CHAIR: Alondra Nelson, Columbia University (NY)
Shirley Tang, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
Invisible Debt: Digitizing and Voicing The Health Disparities and Experiences of Asian American Women
Jacki Rand, University of Iowa (IA)
Native Dissent and Debts of Imperialism: Choctaw Women, Violence, and Health Disparity in the Southeast
Koritha Mitchell, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
Pay Yourself First and Pay it Forward: The Black Girls RUN! Project
COMMENT: Alondra Nelson, Columbia University (NY)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
258. Caucus – Sound Studies: Connected Listening: Re-imagining Community Through Sound
Washington Hilton, Columbia Hall 9 (T)
CHAIR: Michelle Habell-Pallan, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
Jessica Schwartz, Columbia University (NY)
No Longer Can I Stay, It’s True: The Politics of Hearing Harmony in Marshallese “Free Association” Diaspora
Kevin Fellezs, Columbia University (NY)
You Listen But Don’t Ask Question: Listening for the Sounds of Hawaiian-ness
Eric Porter, University of California, Santa Cruz (CA)
Bill Dixon’s Voice
COMMENT: Michelle Habell-Pallan, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
263. Sonic Ledgers of Dissent
Washington Hilton, Jefferson West (C)
CHAIR: Deborah R. Vargas, University of California, Riverside (CA)
Andreana Clay, San Francisco State University (CA)
Searching for Caushun: Homo Thuggery and the Search for Queer Black Masculinity
Gaye Theresa Johnson, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
The Future has a Past: Spatial Entitlement, Race, and Cultural Expression in Black and Brown Los Angeles, 1940–Present
Sherrie Tucker, University of Kansas (KS)
Following the State on the Dance Floor of the Nation: The FBI at the Hollywood Canteen
Shana Redmond, University of Southern California (CA)
All Around the World, Same Song: The Trials of Black Musical Genre and Racial Solidarity in the Twentieth Century
COMMENT: Herman Gray, University of California, Santa Cruz (CA)
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2013
8:00 am – 9:45 am
288. Folklorization on the National Mall: Representations of Culture through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Washington Hilton, Georgetown West (C)
CHAIR: William S. Walker, State University of New York, College at Oneonta (NY)
Virginia Myhaver, Boston University (MA)
Institutionalizing the Folk: Emergent Neo-Liberalism and the Mixed Legacy of the Bicentennial Folklife Festival
Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg, Emory University (GA)
Participation on Folklore’s Terms: Sacred Harp Singing at the 1970 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife
Olivia Cadaval, Smithsonian Institution (DC)
Negotiating Cultural Representations through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Diana Baird N’Diaye, Smithsonian Institution (DC)
Curating Crucial Conversations about Twenty-first-Century African American Diversity at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
COMMENT: William S. Walker, State University of New York, College at Oneonta (NY)
10:00 am – 11:45 am
300. Latinas/os Onscreen and On/Off Air: Rethinking Contemporary Media Audiences and Discourses
Washington Hilton, D – Du Pont (T)
CHAIR: Mari Castañeda, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA)
Jillian Báez, City University of New York, College of Staten Island (NY)
Losing Weight, Balancing, and Aging: Intergenerational Readings of the Mediated Latina Body
Dolores Inés Casillas, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Lost in Translation: The Politics of Spanish-language Radio Ratings
María Elena Cepeda, Williams College (MA)
Latinidad as Transnational Marketing Construct and Performative Category: Latina/o Youth Interpret Los Tigres del Norte and Calle 13’s “América”
Hannah Noel, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
Imagining NPR’s National Publics: Latinas/os and Neoliberal Models of Social Regulation
COMMENT: Mari Castañeda, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA)
Welcome to week three of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one and two of the forum, click here. And now, get up and get ready for Marcus Boon, because there’s no parking on the dance floor at Sounding Out!–JSA
What borders remain when it comes to thinking about sound today? The field of sound studies has exploded in so many far-flung directions in the last few years. However, I argue that what is still somewhat off limits in the field is a consideration of the ontological status of sound: in other words, what it means to understand our own being in the world as a sonic phenomenon. Out of attempts to approach this sonic ontology, comes the realization that there are prohibitions, perhaps universal ones, on thinking about sound in this way, and from that emerges what I call the politics of vibration.
For those, such as myself, who have grown up as a part of sonic subcultures, it is not difficult to ponder sonic ontologies, for the simple reason that many of the most intense and powerful experiences we have had have occurred on dance floors or at clubs, as DJs, musicians, clubbers and/or listeners. I still remember the moment of first hearing Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” blasting through the speakers at a Pop Group gig at the Electric Ballroom in London in the late 1970s: tumbling polyrhythms, polyphony, polysexuality, polyeverything. The feeling was: “wow, the universe contains this! And it contains other people who know what it is!” And contrary to the warnings of Slavoj Zizek concerning the “autistic jouissance” to be found at the limits of language, here we all were: high; the histories of Afrodiasporic displacement and solidarity echoing off the walls; our own implication in those histories illuminated; flickering between utopia and shame.
To quote Eric Satie: “When I was young they told me: You’ll see when you’re fifty. I’m fifty. I’ve seen nothing.” Me too. But I’ve heard a lot and I still experience that same power of sound in more or less the same way. If anything, sound’s power is more intense and surprising, each time it appears. Partly because I have learned how to be a social being through sound—how to love and be loved—enabling me to be more open to its impact than I was as an awkward youth. It makes me sad the way in Canada and elsewhere in el Norte people seem to lessen their involvement in the more intense aspects of sound cultures as they hit 30 or 40. It makes me sad that my four-year-old son rarely gets to hear a real sound system. I look for music at carnivals, weddings, community centers, on the beach. . .anywhere that those age barriers are ignored. Even as a DJ, I increasingly look for new or different kinds of publicness than that of club or dancehall.
Still, I do wonder. Was the movement into sonic subcultures that my generation (and those that followed) made–especially in the UK where music (and intoxicants, and immigration) were one of the few escape routes from the brutalities of Thatcherism–a mistake, precisely because we accepted as ontological, a structure that in fact was smoothly integrated into the operations of late capitalism? From the Factory and Paradise Garage to Berghain or Ministry of Sound. . . how will history look on the era of the mega-club?
Although one could argue that the Internet put an end to the idea of subculture, since it breaks down the locality and secrecy around which particular subcultural communities grow, in fact what seems to be happening is an acceleration in the generation and dissolution of subcultural formations. Hip-hop has adapted very quickly to the internet. The cassettes or CD-Rs sold out of DJ Screw’s record store in Houston, Texas, for example, morph into the world of online mixtapes, Youtube clips and Twitter battles; the gray market availability of samples sounds a lacuna of time, appearing for a day on a hosting site rather than flying below the radar in some particular geographical location. At the same time, sonic subcultures are expanding around the world. If Jacques Attali was right that sound is prophetic, then #idlenomore was announced by Ottawa Native dubstep crew A Tribe Called Red; Tahrir Square by Chaabi and North African hip-hop.
In his book 1989, Joshua Clover describes popular music in the period of neo-liberal globalization as the sound of ideological containment. It’s true that popular music is full of ontological claims about sound, of music that celebrates setting us free. . .but which fails to actually do so. A quote from Ray Brassier just came up on my Twitter feed:
If true, this would suggest that the intensity of moments of sonic jouissance does not necessarily mean anything in terms of ontology or the truth about what’s Real. It could be entirely delusional.
All of which might be true. We might come to realize that, to put it in Heideggerian terms, we’ve been thrown into this, and that maybe there’s not much difference between being thrown and being played. But somehow I think people on dancefloors already know this. The dramas of seduction, commitment and loss are at the core of disco, and many other kinds of popular music too. To quote the disco classic “Lost in Music” by Sister Sledge (later covered by post-punks The Fall):
We’re lost in music; caught in a trap.
No turning back. We’re lost in music.
We’re lost in music. Feel so alive.
I quit my nine-to-five. We’re lost in music.
Other examples are not lacking.
Perhaps sound and music border on a vibrational ontology, rather than being truly the core of one. This is why, as Michael Taussig, Jayna Brown, and others have suggested, they can be concerned with healing. Perhaps any practice that is meaningful — and sonic subcultures are certainly a matter of practice, as Julian Henriques indicates in his book Sonic Bodies — must necessarily work at the boundary of a space that it can never entirely inhabit as a practice, but which it can push one towards, and also receive one from. The anticipation, fear, desire before one goes out, for example, but also the blinding daylight, the sensation of cool air on exposed skin when one leaves a dancehall or a party.
Sound studies has not truly begin to explore these moments of exposure to and abjection from the vibrational core of sound. No doubt, Steve Goodman performed heroic work in Sonic Warfare—which sets out a proposal for a vibrational ontology in the midst of the commodification and militarization of the sonic —as have various explorations of the phenomenology of sound, such as those in Salome Voegelin‘s Listening to Noise and Silence. Yet in both cases, a full consideration of sonic ontology is in the end foreclosed. In Goodman’s case by Sonic Warfare’s emphasis on the militaristic applications of sound and vibration that are appropriated by sonic art and subcultures, which gives the violence of sound and vibration something like ontological status, while the aesthetic and cultural “uses” of the same have only a secondary, somewhat parasitic status. Conversely, in Voegelin’s work, an emphasis on the phenomenological rendering of the moment or event of sonic relationship forecloses a broader investigation of sonic ontology, because it “brackets” (to use Husserl‘s term) considerations beyond that of the subject-object relationship. In both cases, the sonic thing in itself, or indeed an ontology of vibration, risks being lost.
The recent turn to the speculative and to realism in philosophy has yet to make an impact in sound studies, despite the fact that the object of sound presents a provocative and very intimate entry point to that problematic. One of the more intriguing and improbable hypotheses emerging from the speculative realist movement is that of Quentin Meillassoux, who, in After Finitude, makes an argument that speculative knowledge of the real, unmediated by correlation with the Kantian subject, is possible through mathematics. It is roughly Alain Badiou‘s thesis in Being and Event too. As much as music is clearly about the contingency of sonic experience, there are strong arguments, going back to Pythagoras and beyond, about the relation of music to mathematics. Natural harmonics, rhythm: the elements of music express mathematical relationships. I am not interested in reducing music to a kind of vulgar scientism. But what if when we listen to music, we are exposed to a mathematical ontology and at the same time, the contingency of an unprecedented event? What if music is speculatively real? The word “speculative” here would refer not to philosophical propositions, but to the uncanny movement across subject/object individual/collective borders that the sonic matrix offers when “we” listen to “it.” Music not as the source of a speculative discourse on the real, but a speculative practice in which order and contingency meet.
Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres. It matters little whether a specific knowledge of mathematics is invoked here, since many traditional musics find their way to structures that, according to scholars such Alain Danielou, already express mathematical relationships. And in this way, music and musicians can be said to participate in a sonic ontology.
Reluctantly perhaps. Ready or not. The question remains: how many institutional, historical, disciplinary, intellectual, social and political barriers remain in order that a cultural artifact like “One Nation Under a Groove” can be considered to have ontological significance? That is what I mean by the politics of vibration, and in terms of borders, it’s an important set of borders for researchers in sound studies to consider.
Much of my current work focuses on tropes of abjection in recent hip-hop and RnB music, notably that of Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean, artists like Azealia Banks, and a new generation of queer rap MCs emerging out of New York City such as Zebra Katz, Le1f and Cakes Da Killa. All of their work is bracingly obscene, funny, violent. . .a tumbling deck of cards of performances of gender, race, sexuality, class and more. Of course, cursing to a beat is nothing particularly new, but the way in which these artists multiply and collapse identities to an ever more minimal, humming beat perhaps is.
Katz’s remarkable “Ima Read” and its equally remarkable video is a case in point. Although Katz occasionally claims dryly that the song is “pro education,” the “reading” in question mostly refers to the drag queen balls of the Harlem ballroom/voguing scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, where to read meant to verbally trash, i.e. abject, someone at a ball. The song is rapped by male and female voices, crisply denouncing a “bitch” who they are going to “take to college.” The violence of the song is ironic, as much a marker of queer community and Eros as of sexual difference, of racial and trans-racial solidarity as much as racialized violence. It is performed over a minimal beat with a humming, in-your-face bass drum that is the only recognizable tonal element.
Why make the leap to talking about ontology in discussing this admittedly awesome Youtube clip? Both Judith Butler’s famous elaboration of the performativity of gender, one of the bases of queer theory, and Katz and friends play with taboos concerning gender, sexuality and race in contemporary hip-hop emerge from that moment of the ballroom scene.
But what if Butler’s emphasis on performance actually covered up or abjected the ontological nature of experiments at the balls? Perhaps we need to rethink why the ultimate ball anthem is Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” What is sonic ‘realness’? In restoring the sonic dimension to the ballroom scene, and learning, from Zebra Katz, to face that constitutive abjection that Kristeva amongst others has pointed us towards, we can begin to feel for ourselves what a vibrational ontology is.
My thanks to Catherine Christer Hennix, Steven Shaviro, Kevin Rogers and Ken McLeod for conversations that helped me in thinking this through, and to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for luminous remix skills.
Featured Image by Flickr User depinniped
Marcus Boon is associate professor of English at York University in Toronto, and was a Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities in 2011-12. He is the author of The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard UP, 2002) and In Praise of Copying (Harvard UP, 2010). He writes about contemporary music for The Wire. He is currently co-editing a book on Buddhism and critical theory, and a new edition of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s The Third Mind. He is also working on a book entitled The Politics of Vibration.