Tag Archive | Justin Eckstein

“Most pleasant to the ear”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Itinerant Intellectual Soundscapes

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it.

Readers, today’s post by Phillip Luke Sinitere offers a wonderful introduction to W.E.B. Du Bois’s life’s work if he is new to you, and a finely-wrought analysis of what the sound of Du Bois’s voice–through first hand accounts and recordings–offers folks already well-acquainted.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


In her 1971 book His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois recalled about her late spouse’s public lectures that “everyone in that hall followed his words with close attention. Though he read from a manuscript replete with statistics and sociological measurements, he reached the hearts as well as the minds of his listeners.” Shirley’s memory about W. E. B.’s lectures invites reflection on the social and political significance of what I call his “itinerant intellectual soundscapes”—the spaces in which he spoke as an itinerant intellectual, a scholar who traveled annually on lecture tours to speak on the historical substance of contemporary events, including presentations annually during Negro History Week.

Yet Du Bois’s lectures took place within and across a soundscape he shared with an audience. In what follows, I center the sound of Du Bois’s voice literally and figuratively to 1) document his itinerant intellectual labor, 2) analyze how listeners responded to the soundscapes in which his speeches resided, and 3) explore what it means to listen to Du Bois in the present historical moment.

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Upon completing a Ph.D. in history at Harvard in 1895, and thereafter working as a professor, author, and activist for the duration of his career until his death in 1963, Du Bois spent several months each year on lecture trips across the United States. As biographers and Du Bois scholars such as Nahum Chandler, David Levering Lewis, and Shawn Leigh Alexander document, international excursions to Japan in the 1930s included public speeches. Du Bois also lectured in China during a global tour he took in the late 1950s.

W. E. B. Du Bois delivering a speech in front of a microphone during trip to China, circa 1959, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

In his biographical writings, Lewis describes the “clipped tones” of Du Bois’s voice and the “clipped diction” in which he communicated, references to the accent acquired from his New England upbringing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Reporter Cedric Belfrage, editor of the National Guardian for which Du Bois wrote between the 1940s and 1960s, listened to the black scholar speak at numerous Guardian fundraisers. “On each occasion he said just what needed saying, without equivocation and with extraordinary eloquence,” Belfrage described. “The timbre of his public-address voice was as thrilling in its way as that of Robeson’s singing voice. He wrote and spoke like an Old Testament prophet.” George B. Murphy heard Du Bois speak when he was a high school student and later as a reporter in the 1950s; he recalled the “crisp, precise English of [Du Bois’s] finely modulated voice.”

One benefit of Du Bois’s long life was its intersection with technological advances in audio recording and amplification, the dynamics of which literary historian Jennifer Lynn Stoever insightfully narrates in The Sonic Color Line. This means that in 2018 we can literally listen to Du Bois’s voice; we can experience sonic dimensions of his intellect and sit with the verbal articulation of his ideas. For example, Smithsonian Folkways released two audio recordings of Du Bois: an April 1960 speech, “Socialism and the American Negro” he delivered in Wisconsin, and a 1961 oral history interview, including a full transcript. Furthermore, in his digitized UMass archive we can read the text of another 1960 speech, “Whither Now and Why” and listen to the audio of that March lecture.

The intersection of these historical artifacts texture understanding of the textual and aural facets of Du Bois’s work as an itinerant intellectual. They give voice to specific dimensions of his late career commitments to socialism and communism and unveil the language he used to communicate his ideas about economic democracy and political equality.

The act of hearing Du Bois took place within and across his itinerant intellectual soundscape was rarely a passive activity, an experience toward which Shirley’s comments above gesture. Those who attended Du Bois’s lectures often commented on listening to his presentations by connecting visual memories with auditory recollections and affective responses.

John Hope Franklin, 1950s, while Chair of Department of History at Brooklyn College, Courtesy of Duke University

For example, the late black historian John Hope Franklin penned an autobiographical reflection about his first encounter with Du Bois in Oklahoma in the 1920s at 11 years old. At an education convention with his mother, Franklin commented on Du Bois’s physical appearance: “I recall quite vividly . . . his coming to the stage, dressed in white tie and tails with a ribbon draped across his chest . . . the kind I later learned was presented by governments to persons who had made some outstanding contribution to the government or even humankind.” He then referenced a sonic memory. “I can also remember that voice, resonant and well modulated,” Franklin wrote, “speaking the lines he had written on note cards with a precision and cadence that was most pleasant to the ear . . . the impression he made on me was tremendous, and I would make every effort to hear him in the future wherever and whenever our paths crossed.” While Franklin did not remember the speech’s content, his auditory memories deliver a unique historical impression of the sound of Du Bois’s intellectual labor—a “resonant and well modulated” inspirational voice to which Franklin attributed his own career as an intellectual and historian.

A few years after the Oklahoma lecture, Du Bois gave a February 1927 presentation on interracial political solidarity in Denver during Negro History Week. Two audience members penned letters to him in response to his speech. A minister, A. A. Heist, told Du Bois that his encouragement for interracial work across the color line was bearing fruit through community race relation meetings. Attorney Thomas Campbell’s letter, like Heist’s, confirmed the speech’s positive reception; but it also revealed captivating details about the soundscape. Campbell described the lecture as a “great speech” and a “remarkable address.” “I have never heard you deliver such an eloquent, forceful and impressive speech,” he gushed, to an “appreciative and responsive audience.” Although the speech’s text does not survive, from correspondence we learn about its subject matter and receive details about the soundscape and positive listener responses to his spoken words.

 

NAACP Pres W.E.B. DuBois speaks Third Baptist Church 1958, San Francisco

The observations of Franklin, Heist, and Campbell collectively disclose pertinent historical, gendered, and racialized dimensions of listening to Du Bois. These historical documents convey what rhetoric scholar Justin Eckstein terms “sound ontology,” the multifaceted relationship between speakers, words, listeners, and the intellectual, cultural, and affective responses generated within such sonic settings. In other words, within the context of each speech’s delivery listeners heard Du Bois speak and felt his words which generated embodied responses. At the intersection of Franklin’s visual and aural memories is a well-dressed regal Du Bois, a male black leader whose presence in Tulsa a handful of years after a destructive race riot perhaps represented recovery and resurrection, whose words and voice commanded authority. Similarly, recollections of a leading lawyer in Denver’s early twentieth-century black community lauded Du Bois’s role in fostering interracial possibility. Campbell’s admission was important; it documents how a male race leader and key figure in one of the nation’s most important interracial organizations, the NAACP, inspired through an impactful, moving, and persuasive lecture collaborative conversations across the color line. Given Du Bois’s stature as a national and international scholar and intellectual leader, Franklin, Heist, and Campbell perhaps expected him to dispense wisdom from travel and study. Nevertheless, the historical record documents an interactive soundscape that emanated from Du Bois’s presence, his words, and the listening audience.

Ethel Ray Nance, a black  educator and activist from Minnesota, first met Du Bois during the Harlem Renaissance. After she moved to Seattle in the 1940s, Nance helped to organize his west coast lecture tours and assisted with his United Nations work in 1945. Nance also assembled a memoir of her work with Du Bois, titled “A Man Most Himself.” Her reflections provide a unique personal perspective on Du Bois. She recalled meeting him at a reception held in his honor after a lecture in Minneapolis in the early 1920s. She described the larger soundscape of Du Bois’s lecture, especially how listeners responded to him. “The audience gave him complete attention,” she wrote, “they seemed to want him to go on and on. You could feel a certain strength being transmitted from speaker to listeners.”

Also in Minnesota, around the same time a young black college student named Anna Arnold Hedgeman heard Du Bois lecture at Hamline University. As she listened to a lecture on Pan-Africanism with “rapt attention,” Hedgeman wrote in her 1964 memoir The Trumpet Sounds, she noticed that Du Bois wore “a full dress suit as though he had been born in it” and commented that “his command of the English language was superb.” Hedgeman located her inspiration for a career in education and activism to hearing Du Bois speak. “This slim, elegant, thoughtful brown man had sent me scurrying to the library and I discovered his Souls of Black Folk,” she said.

W.E.B. Du Bois on a country road in his own car, 1925, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Broadly speaking, the listener responses mentioned above capture dimensions of Du Bois’s public reception at arguably the mid-life pinnacle of his career. He was in his 50s during the 1920s, an established scholar, author, and black leader. Yet due to shifting national and international conditions related to capital, labor, and civil rights during the Great Depression and World War II, his politics moved further left. He settled more concretely on socialist solutions to capitalism’s failures. This position became increasingly unpopular as the Cold War dawned. People still listened to Du Bois, but with far more critical and dismissive dispositions.

Page from W.E.B. Du Bois’s voluminous FBI file

Peering further into the historical record, part of Du Bois’s verbal archive and audible history resides in his FBI file. Concerned about his leftist political leanings, the Bureau had surveilled Du Bois starting in the 1940s by reading his publications, and dispatching agents or informants to attend his lectures and speeches. As the Cold War commenced, scrutiny increased. Redacted reports communicated his movements throughout the world in 1960, including a speech at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D. C. when he received the Lenin Peace Prize, and an address he gave in Ghana at a dinner celebrating that nation’s recent independence in 1957. The FBI file states that he received “an ovation as he rose to make a statement” about world peace and a more equitable distribution of resources. Similarly, the report from Ghana relayed that in his address he outlined two divergent world systems, “the socialism of Karl Marx leading to communism, and private capitalism as developed by North America and Western Europe.”

The bureaucratic construction of FBI reports reveals less about the audibility of Du Bois’s voice. However, unlike the listener reports presented above, the technical nature of bureaucratic communications offer a great deal more about the content of his speeches and thus documents another sense in which people—presumably FBI agents or informants—heard or listened to Du Bois as part of their sonic surveillance.

Du Bois’s audible history invests new meaning into his work as a scholar and public intellectual. Through John Hope Franklin, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman we “see” Du Bois lecturing and speaking, in effect the public presence of a scholar we tend to know more readily through the printed words of his publications. With Thomas Campbell and Ethel Ray Nance—and from a different vantage point his FBI files—we “feel” the power of Du Bois’s words and the affective experience of his verbal constructions. Whether found in historical documents or narrated through vivid descriptions of the “clipped” aspects of his voice’s literal sound, investigating Du Bois’s audible history innovatively humanizes a towering scholar mostly readily known through his published words.

Attending to the audible and archival records of his life and times, we not only encounter the sonic dimensions of his literal voice, we observe how ordinary people listened to him and responded to his ideas. Some embraced his perspectives while others, especially during the Cold War, denounced his socialist vision of the world. Yet this is where the redactions in the FBI files ironically speak loudest: Du Bois’s ideas persisted, and survived. Scholars and activists amplified his words and retooled his ideas in service of black liberation, social justice, and economic equality.

W.E.B. Du Bois receiving honorary degree on his 95th birthday, University of Ghana, Accra, 1963, February 23, 1963,Courtesy of the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, physical image located in Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

By literally listening to and sitting with an audible Du Bois today there’s an opportunity to mobilize affect into action, a version of what Casey Boyle, James J. Brown, Jr. and Steph Ceraso call “transduction.” Du Bois’s voice digitized delivers rhetoric within yet beyond the computer screen. It (re)enters the world in a contemporary soundscape. Hearing his voice produces affect and thought; and thought provokes action or inspires creativity. Such a “mediation of meaning” shows that contemporary listeners inhabit a soundscape with Du Bois. Whether a scholar listens to Du Bois in an archive, students and teachers engage his voice in the classroom, or anyone privately at home leisurely tunes into his speeches, time, space, and place collectively determine how wide and expansive the Du Bois soundscape is. Advancements in communication, digital and sonic technologies mean that across whatever modality his voice moves there’s a sense in which Du Bois remains an itinerant intellectual.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2018-19. He is also Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately African American school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his books include Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2013); Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History (University of Missouri Press, 2014) and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). Currently, he is at work on projects about W. E. B. Du Bois’s political and intellectual history, as well as a biography of twentieth-century writer James Baldwin. In 2019, Northwestern University Press will publish his next book, Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.  

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Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka –Kristin Moriah

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”–Toniesha Taylor

The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom–Carter Mathes

“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt

 

Yellow Rain and The Sound of the Matter: Kalia Yang’s Sonorous Objection to Radiolab

The critically acclaimed WNYC program Radiolab found itself embroiled in a controversy for its recent broadcast segment “Yellow Rain.”  Released on September 24, 2012 as part of the episode entitled “The Fact of the Matter,” the 20 minute segment “Yellow Rain” recounted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of the Hmong by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao after the United States left Vietnam and the subsequent debates surrounding the chemical weapon called “yellow rain.  The episode pitted the witnessing of Eng Yang, a survivor and documenter of the genocide—whom producer Pat Walters describes as the “Hmong guy” at one point—and his niece, award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang—referred to only as “Kalia” by hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad—against the research of university scientists and the relentless questioning of Krulwich.

Following the episode’s broadcast, many listeners and critics argued that Radiolab’s treatment of their the Yangs was Orientalist and unethical. Jea, writing on Radiolab’s “Yellow Rain” comment page suggested “Ms. Yang and her uncle were dismissed and even reduced to pawns in the larger scheme of RadioLab’s agenda.” Others, such as Bob Collins, writing for Minnesota Public Radio worried that “the story appeared […]to invalidate the Hmong loss and suffering in Laos.” Aaron, a commentor on Current Magazine’s coverage of the controversy called Radiolab’s coverage “inexcusable science, nothing close to journalism, and if only ‘a story,’ one that cements erroneous ideas in the minds of its listeners.” Kirti Kamboj, writing for Hyphen, a magazine dedicated to Asian American arts, culture, and politics, described the episode as “heartbreaking,” “utterly infuriating,” and an exemplar of “Orientalist, ethnocentric framing” designed to privilege Western knowledge.

From my perspective as a scholar of rhetoric, communication, and debate, to call Radiolab’s game rigged would be an understatement. The interview was not conducted on an even playing field and it smacks of a white Western privilege that the writers and producers failed to fully acknowledge even in their on-air discussion following the interview. Radiolab determined the questions, edited the exchange, and retained the capacity to both frame and amend the discussion (there is a debate concerning whether or not the Yangs knew the questions prior to the interview—this discussion can be found here, Radiolab’s response here , and answer to Radiolab’s claims here.).

In addition to the whether or not Radiolab misrepresented the Yangs and downplayed the mass murder of the Hmong in their pursuit of “truth,” I find that this episode is important for the insights it contains into argumentative invention, journalism, and new media ethics, all sparked by the grain of Kalia Yang’s voice in response to Krulwich’s questions. I argue that Kalia’s sounded distress functioned as what I call a “sonorous objection,” instigating the critique of Radiolab’s tactics. Borrowing from argumentation theory, an objection describes an argument that draws the context of an argumentative exchange into view. Research on objections has most often examined the use of visual images, such as the controversy sparked by the photographs coming from of Abu Ghraib. In this short piece, I will wed prior research on objections with theories about sound to argue that Kalia used the grain of her voice to call out—and call into question—the opaque assumptions that governed the interview and its reception.

Kao Kalia Yang, Image courtesy of the Fox Cities Book Festival

“Yellow Rain” recalls the Hmong genocide following the Vietnam War. The Hmong were recruited by the CIA to help disrupt supply lines to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). After American troops withdrew, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao persecuted the Hmong for aiding the US. The communists attacked the Hmong, eradicating villages and blanketing populations with a sticky, yellow substance. Attempting to escape systemic annihilation, the Hmong receded into the jungle, where many still reside today. Some of the Hmong that were able to escape brought with them leaves covered in the yellow stuff, which they gave to local aid workers. These workers then shipped the samples back to the United States where labs diagnosed it as a chemical agent known as “yellow rain.” A concerned Reagan administration reasoned that only the Soviet Union had the technical capacity to produce such a weapon. As a result, Reagan restarted the Unites States’ then-dormant Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) program. Radiolab’s hosts, Abumrad and Krulwich take issue with this narrative; troubling the assertion that yellow rain was in fact a chemical weapon and insinuating that Reagan used the Hmong incident as an excuse to start producing CBWs.

“Yellow Rain,” on Radiolab.

“Yellow Rain” progressed like many other segments of Radiolab. Abumrad and Krulwich began by recounting the story of the Hmong from the perspective of retired CIA agent Merle Prebbenow and the Yangs. Next, they interview Harvard professor Matthew Meselson and Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, using their testimony to suggest that “yellow rain” was actually bees releasing their bowels en masse after hibernation. Then Abumrad and Krulwich brought this provocative hypothesis to the Yangs. Here, the show intensifies, the music fades, and Krulwich begins to question the Yangs, “as if he were a cross-examining attorney” according to Bob Collins, blogger for Minnesota Public Radio. As the interview goes on, Krulwich’s tone increasingly stiffens as he repeats a similar line of questioning: “But, as far as I can tell,” Krulwich asserts, “your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.”

Kalia’s voice beings to fray:

My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done [This is Kalia’s transcription of her statements, from Hyphen].

Kalia reflects on her experience with Radiolab in a post for Hyphen, characterizing the interview as more of an interrogation. I add an additional layer: that of the deliberative exchange.  While it is certainly true that there was a great discrepancy between the interlocutors, both parties adduced reasons for their respective positions producing an argumentative encounter that challenged the norms that govern discourse and language.

In the above quotation, Kalia claims that Radiolab ambushed her and their meeting occurred under a pretense of telling the Hmong story. She then rhetorically situates her interlocutor within a broader history of silencing the Hmong. While it may be tempting to look at the Radiolab interview as an isolated event, Kalia’s arguments cast it as another iteration of the Hmong being discounted. We cannot, in other words, cleave “Yellow Rain” from a history of oppression.

August 2004, Image by Flickr User Awning

Additionally, Kalia chides Radiolab’s concerns, calling them a “semantics game.” Here, both the use of semantics and game is instructive. Semantics speaks to the trivial nature of Krulwich’s questions. His focus on yellow rain and its dubious status as a chemical weapon obfuscates the fact that weapons were used against the Hmong. Or, to reformulate Kalia’s argument, Radiolab is trading purely in language and ignoring the material reality of her people. The invocation of game is also important because it suggests that Krulwich does not understand the historical gravity of his actions. And, perhaps more importantly, that Radiolab is not taking the incident seriously. These arguments coalesce to trouble the assumption that the interview –and the inclusion of the Yang’s voices–was fair, equal, and inclusive. This culminates in Kalia wresting her agency from this context by ending the interview.

However, an exclusive focus on language ignores the intersecting effects of histories–personal, interpersonal and social–sounds, cultures, moods, and affects. Indeed, the grain of Kalia’s voice operates as an affective vector. Teresa Brenna, in The Transmission of Affect, explains, vocal rhythm “is a tool in the expression of agency, just as words are. It can literally convey the tone of an utterance, and in this sense, it does unite word and affect”(70). Different vocal inflictions invoke both biographic and cultural histories, as the body attempts to discern meaning. Political theorist William Connolly, in Neuropolitics, calls this space between sound and meaning the virtual register of memory. Virtual memory describes a background below conscious recollection that discerns sensory data, like sound, and renders it intelligible (24). We often see this register at work when we watch a movie, as different scenes are stored below the level of reflection and are called up to interpret a scene. Virtual memory is recursive, folding in present experiences to help guide future encounters and using previous encounters to make sense of the present. Thus the rhythm of Kalia’s voice guides the entrainment of affect by drawing on listeners’ previous encounters with similar sounds. This process infuses listeners’ perceptions and resulted in what commentators called “painful” and “emotional.”

While Kalia’s words claim Radiolab ambushed her and her uncle, the grain of her voice draws the unequal distribution of power into sharp relief. Her vocal cracks resonated with listeners, imparting an intense, visceral experience and provoking an outcry. One listener, Mathew Salesses sums up the response: “Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.” It demonstrates that Kalia was through reasoning with Krulwich; his use of Western science to discredit indigenous knowledge made sincere argumentation impossible. Her cry was not only an act of resistance, but also an objection that troubled Radiolab’s claims of journalistic excellence, highlighting vexing issues with editing and story construction.

Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, Image by Flickr User Carlos Gomez

In argumentation parlance, Kalia’s voice operated as an “objection.” In “Entanglements of Consumption,” argumentation scholars Kathryn M. Olson and G. Thomas Goodnight (1994) explain how an objection functions within an argumentative encounter: “absent a common agreement as to the means of reaching consensus, debate over the ‘truth’ of an asserted claim is set aside, in whole or in part, and challenges are raised as to the acceptability of the communicative context within which the argument is offered as secured”(251). That is, when deliberation occurs within a shared context—agreed upon values, goals, rules, and facts—the argument progresses smoothly. However, when there is a disjunction between interlocutors, such as in “Yellow Rain” where both parties disagree on basic facts, hegemonic beliefs take precedence. Objections function to evidence this differential, making both parties (and often an audience) aware of this gap. As such, objections are not concerned with refuting previous claims—the way that Kalia states neither she nor her uncle are interested in having a semantic debate—but questions the very context—and the conditions–of the debate itself.

Despite Radiolab’s attempts to fetishize her voice to evidence the “fact of the matter” and the “complicated nature of truth,” Kalia’s voice retained her agency. Through the invocation of the sonorous objection, she eluded capture and demonstrated the unequal terrain of the interview. Her pain enveloped the listener, leaving a resonance that Radiolab listener Cecilia Yang called “painful to listen to” in her personal blog. As Olson and Goodnight remind us, objections arise in a repressive context, when people are denied a voice. For Kalia, histories of racism and colonialism infused the argumentative encounter, making it impossible for her to “reason,” a framework she exposes as a stacked game. As such, her sonorous objection functioned to evidence this disparity, while directing the listener’s attention to her cause. Just as the pictures of prisoners coming out of Abu Ghraib incited outrage about U.S. imperialism and violence, Kalia’s sonorous objection provoked a conversation about the Hmong, Radiolab, and the ethics of journalism in the new media age.

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.

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.

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